By Jeannie Gregory
If you have been watching the Rockford community, you have been seeing a wonderful movement starting to take hold. This movement is led by a group of very concerned parents, teachers and community members who do not want to stand idly by and allow depression and hopelessness to take over. It is called Rockford HOPE Group, and it enjoyed its official launch on Tuesday, Nov. 27 at the Wolverine World Wide Family YMCA.
The Rockford HOPE Group has been spearheaded by Dr. Colette Smiley and Dixie Newell, and is starting to make an impact on the community. The acronym, HOPE, stands for “Helping Others through Prevention and Education,” – important ingredients when battling a world full of stress, pressure and the bustle of technology. The group’s mission statement says it all: “Community members working together to support organizations and individuals who educate and advocate for increased understanding of mental health and suicide prevention.”
According to their Web site, “The impetus for the Rockford HOPE Group was the desire for a positive and measured response to the multiple, tragic losses of students and adults in our community during the past few years.” The group cautions that they are not mental health experts and they utilize the experience of those who are experts in the mental health field. They turn to advisors Barb Hawkins Palmer, of the Executive Director of Kent County Health Department’s Healthy Kent 2020; Sue Hood of Network 180 and Coordinator of the Kent County Suicide Prevention Coalition; and Christy Buck, the Executive Director of the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, for help when faced with questions, and sensitive issues.
“Rockford HOPE believes that suicide is preventable, and the stigma surrounding mental illness must be eliminated,” states the HOPE Web site. “We believe it is vital to talk openly about depression, and other mental health issues, as well as suicide risk factors, prevention, and intervention.”
The group also feels it is important for the community to put a face on these tragedies so it is understood that it affects not only the families, but everyone who is touched by the death. There were three guest speakers who shared their personal stories at the launch. All three brought pictures of their loved ones with them, putting faces and wonderful personalities to the statistics. They shared the love that they shared, the good their loved ones gave to the world and insight into their own stories. Each and every story told the audience that tragedy can happen within any family, at any time.
“This is not just a Rockford thing,” said Buck, at the community launch. “This is something that is happening everywhere.” Buck had plenty of statistics to back her statements, including that suicide is the third leading cause of death among high school students and second leading among college students. She also pointed out that the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan was also utilizing the “be nice” campaign that carries a tagline of, “two simple words that can save a life.” The be nice campaign is an anti-bullying initiative that teaches the importance of treating people with civility and kindness. It is a campaign that hit Rockford last spring – the signs are still up in downtown merchant windows.
Tuesday’s HOPE launch was extremely successful, with more than 50 in attendance, including Superintendent of Rockford Public Schools Dr. Michael Shibler. The school system was approached by the HOPE Group, wanting to collaborate with the school. It is proof that Rockford is always striving to be the supportive community it is, for as the Rockford HOPE Group was working to develop its group, the school district was also working to address some of the same concerns.
The Rockford School District, under the direction of Kirsten Myers, RPS Executive Director of Special Services, has produced a Community Education and Prevention Series, called Developing Healthy Kids. The series started in September, addressing “Adolescent Depression,” and was followed in October with “Suicide Prevention.” The topic for the January 17th meeting is, “Electronic Safety in the 21st Century” and addresses texting and driving, sexting, and the importance of Internet safety. For more information go to www.rockfordschools.org and click on Developing Healthy Kids. The series takes place from 6:30-8 p.m. in the Rockford High School Auditorium. A videotape is uploaded on the school’s Web site after a session is concluded.
“We were contacted by HOPE inquiring if we would join forces, and we answered ‘absolutely’,” Shibler said. “We feel it is important to work with, and support, one another when addressing such important issues. We were more than happy to join forces and bring the community together for the priority of the healthy development of our youth, from elementary age through young adulthood. We know that developing this partnership – and making healthy kids a priority – will have a positive impact on our youth, as well as their families.”
The Rockford HOPE Group has developed a support group for Parents of Teens that meet the first Thursday of each month from 7-8 p.m. The group’s next regular meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 29 from 7-8 p.m. at the center. Both meetings take place at the Rockford Freshman Center.
As these two organizations, and the community as a whole, grow together to become educated on such serious topics, it is sending a message. And that message is that as a community member, you are never alone. Someone is always there to listen, to comfort, to understand and to help. You just have to reach out. For more information, please go to www.rockfordhopegroup.org, or find them on Facebook at Rockford Hope Group.