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South Valley Journal

Hallways of hope at South Hills Middle School

Mar 04, 2021 12:27PM ● By Jet Burnham

The Hall of Hope, created during Hope Week at South Hills Middle School. (Photo courtesy of Valerie Ashley.)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

The hallway that leads to the cafeteria at South Hills Middle School has been transformed into a Hallway of Hope, with special skylight covers bringing the bright blue sky inside and colorful paper covering the walls on which students have written things that give them hope. The yearly appearance of the hallway launches Hope Week.

Members of the Tiger Squad plan the annual Hope Week. This year it is being held Mar. 1-4. 

“We just want to promote suicide prevention to all the kids at the school, and to help them know that there's people here for them if they need help,” said Kenna Owens, an eighth grade Tiger Squad member.

School counselor Valerie Ashley is the adviser to Tiger Squad, a group of 29 student leaders who participate in Hope Squad training and suicide prevention.

“It's really great because they're getting these skills and then they're also sharing what they learn with everyone at the school,” Ashley said. “They're really an integrated part of our curriculum for suicide prevention. They plan everything for Hope Week.”

Ashley said this year’s group is very ambitious and motivated. The activities they’ve planned promote coping skills that prevent suicide such as healthy habits, optimism, connection with other people, and focusing on things they enjoy. Students will earn raffle tickets as they participate in a tug-o-war and a show-and-tell session, write positive messages to post around the school, and dress-up according to daily themes. Community businesses have donated prizes—gift cards, bags of chips, cans of pop, coupons for pizza and movie passes—for the raffle winners.

The Tiger Squad had to find different ways to promote Hope Week without the traditional guest speakers and assemblies because of current public safety restrictions.

“This year is going to be different because of COVID,” said eighth grader Mirra Patterson. “I think it's going to hit a lot of kids differently because of everything that's been going on. A lot of people are struggling more now so I think that it's going to be really good and show that, even with everything that's going on in the world, there is still hope. There are people you can talk to and we will always be there to help.”

Kenna said students are more receptive to learning about suicide prevention skills from their peers and are more likely to pay attention when the presenter is a someone they know or just someone they feel like they can relate to.

Sarah Varga, another squad member, said, “They don't believe that adults understand what they're going through, because it was different for them when they were growing up. It's nice to know that the kids that we're teaching trust us enough to listen.”

Students who are selected to be part of Tiger Squad are friendly, wanting to make a difference, not afraid to stand up, trustworthy, compassionate, empathetic, approachable and comfortable in taking on the role.

“It's really a big opportunity to be part of Hope Squad because we're looking out for our peers and everyone in this school and being trusted by them, and also promoting friendships, along with suicide prevention,” Mirra said. “It's so much fun to be able to do that but it is a lot of responsibility and leadership, too. I think it's a great opportunity—especially for kids our age—to learn those skills.”

Sarah said being on the squad helps her to get to know other people better.

“Hope Squad, for me, is a way for me to connect with people at our school without having to know them by name and everything about them—it's just a way for me to be there,” Sarah said. “And it's nice to know that I'm trusted by other kids to just come up and talk to me.” 

Eighth grader Tate Handley said the skills he’s learned in Tiger Squad have helped him know how to help a friend who was struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.

“I've been able to help her get through her feelings, and at the same time make her feel like she's important,” he said. “I know that it's been helping her and it's been making a difference in her life.”

Members of Tiger Squad often have to stretch out of their comfort zone; they are encouraged to sit with different people at lunch and to befriend new students.

“My second week here, I made a new friend that I don't think I would have been able to make friends with without any of this training,” said Dax Johnson, a seventh grade squad member. “They were really going through a rough time and they really needed my help, and I was able to help in every way that I could. We're good friends now.”