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Hope Squad Conference empowers Okaloosa Students to help peers in need, suicide prevention

Schools from across Okaloosa County gathered at the Northwest Florida Fairgrounds on Tuesday, September 12, 2023 for the first ever county-wide Hope Squad Conference. The event brought together over 180 […]

Schools from across Okaloosa County gathered at the Northwest Florida Fairgrounds on Tuesday, September 12, 2023 for the first ever county-wide Hope Squad Conference.

The event brought together over 180 students (along with advisors) from 13 schools who are part of the peer-to-peer suicide prevention program at their respective schools.

  • The conference featured a lineup of speakers and activities aimed at equipping students with the tools needed to provide hope and prevent suicide amongst their peers.

Peggy Brockman, head of the local Hope Squad program, welcomed students bright and early, noting that the conference has been years in the making. “We have kids here today that have been doing this for four years now. We’re gonna learn some stuff,” Brockman enthused.

A major highlight of the event was a $115,000 donation by program sponsor Simply Healthcare to support Hope Squad’s work across schools in the county. “Our company wants to fully support Hope Squad,” said Simply Healthcare’s Brent Couch, explaining the company’s excitement around Hope Squad’s impact.

Kathy Houchins, Peggy Brockman and Simply Healthcare’s Brent Couch presenting the $115,000 donation to Hope Squad.

The conference agenda featured talks by Hope Squad leaders, a team bonding exercise, and QPR suicide prevention training.

Tracy Lamb, Director of Student Services for the Okaloosa County School District, spoke about the power students have to provide hope for their struggling peers. She shared a personal story of her own daughter who had harmed herself, but was prompted to get help after a simple act of kindness from a fellow student. 

Lamb told the students that a Hope Squad member saved her life that day. A day that she says her daughter felt “invisible.”

  • “Just being seen, just being recognized, gave her the peace that she needed,” said Lamb. “Remember, every word you speak, every hello you give, matters. It matters.”
Tracy Lamb, Director of Student Services at Okaloosa COunty School District

Seventh grader Elizabeth Rodriguez of Ruckel Middle School is a first-year member who joined because she wanted to be part of a group that helps students who may not feel comfortable opening up to adults. 

“It lets students know that their peers are there for them, even if they don’t feel like anyone else is,” she explained. “Even if you don’t feel like there is anyone to talk to, just know there always is. “

Cole Tabb, a second-year member from Choctawhatchee High School, joined Hope Squad after his own mental health challenges growing up. 

  • “I found out there was a group coming into high school that really sought to help those in need and it was students doing it, which made my peers feel a lot more comfortable,” he shared. I knew I wanted to be a part of that community coming into Choctaw.

Tabb, who just last week broke the school’s all-time football rushing record, says that the program has been an asset at Choctaw. “I think you see so many kids being somewhat open about depression and anxiety because there’s students to talk to about it with, and not just adults who they can sometimes be scared to talk to.”

As for his peers who are currently struggling, Tabb had a very clear message that “it is okay.”

  • “It’s okay. It’s normal. Everyone goes through struggles. Everyone goes through really hard times,” he said. “The best thing is to find those people that you’re close with that you can express your feelings to.”

Hope Squad members were presented with gratitude journals to write down things they are thankful for as a self-care practice. Brockman encouraged students to take time to record their thoughts and feelings. “If I were writing in mine right now, I’d be writing that I am so grateful for every one of you in this room,” she told the crowd.

Brockman publicly thanked Superintendent of Schools Marcus Chambers for his continued support. Chambers has been an advocate for mental health across the school district, and Tuesday morning was no different.

  • “I am incredibly proud to have Hope Squad in all of our schools because we know the training works,” he said. “It empowers students to help their peers find support at a time when they need it most.”

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