It’s okay to not be okay! … and you’re not alone in feeling that way!

That’s the message the Hope Squad wants to get out. Wilton High School‘s year-old suicide prevention club is only just the second of its kind in the whole state of Connecticut, but students and staff hope more will be founded to serve as a unique resource for students who may be in emotional distress.

“It’s just easier to talk to students,” explained founder and first president Samira Ayoub, 17, who heads to Purdue University in the fall to study molecular biology.

The idea behind the club is to have some of the most empathetic students in a school trained to serve as helpful and appropriate listeners for any students who may be facing feelings of despair that might even manifest as suicidal ideation.

“It’s definitely more of a safe space for the students struggling for their own mental health. I think talking to adults can be super intimidating,” said Lia Lombardi, 15, a rising junior who will become the club’s next president.

Samira learned about the Hope Squad from her mother, Christina Ayoub, who works at the Newtown Public Schools, which was the first district in the state to implement the club.

“During a dinner conversation I mentioned that this club was starting in Newtown and gave Samira some brief background about it being a peer-based suicide prevention program,” she said.

The suicide death of one Wilton student in 2020 had a significant impact on Samira, who became aware that she — and many others — don’t know what to even do if someone who’s in distress approaches them.

“I think a lot of students have had that burden and don’t know what to do with it,” she said, noting it’s a very sensitive topic.

Founded in Provo, UT, in 1999, Hope Squad is a national organization that helps create clubs in high schools nationally and internationally, as well as engages in education and public awareness initiatives. To date, the program has been launched in more than 1,600 schools.

Hope Squad provided a package of guidelines and resources for the formation of the club, which includes having each participant trained in the “Question-Persuade-Refer” method originated with the QPR Institute.

According to that group’s website, “People trained in QPR learn how to recognize the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to question, persuade, and refer someone to help.”

“We essentially became trained to respond to certain scenarios … things to say and not to say,” Samira said.

Before it even began the club went through the process of doing an extensive survey among the student body in order to find a dozen or so of the students that were regarded by the largest number of their peers as the most empathetic and trustworthy — the people that others would feel comfortable going to were they in crisis.

“These are the students that you feel like you already go to with your problems,” Samira said.

Those students were asked to become the founding members of the club last fall, subsequently undergoing the QPR training.

“They were really prepared to kind of handle this role,” explained Matthew Rosen, a relatively new guidance counselor in the district who took on the job of advisor.

The club almost didn’t get off the ground because the initial funding was unavailable. However, the club got seed money to get Hope Squad started when the District Safe School Climate Coordinator Kimberly Zemo learned about funding available from the Wilton Youth Council thanks to a grant from the United Way of Coastal Fairfield County.

Kim Zemo, safe school climate coordinator for Wilton Public Schools, left, and Samira Ayoub, 17, a senior at Wilton High School who started the Hope Squad club, which targets helping kids that might suffer from suicidal ideation. Credit: GOOD Morning Wilton

“As often as we could, we tried to get people to know what the Hope Squad was,” Samira said, with stories aired on the school’s in-house “Morning Warrior” show, information put out on social media, and a club presence brought to various events around town, such as an informational booth set up at the Wilton Library.

“I think the most exciting part was when we got our first referral,” Rosen said, “because then we knew that the club was working.”

Since then there have been several instances where Hope Squad members have been approached by students in crisis — some of which have warranted referrals to the school counseling department, while others have given the members themselves a chance to help abate discomfort among students through their listening and simply being there to listen.

Christina Ayoub expressed her pride in her daughter’s work getting the Hope Squad up and running, calling it a testament to her motivation and passion.

“Her personal connection to the loss experienced by Wilton in 2020, combined with her own experiences navigating concerning warning signs with peers, fueled her desire to make a positive impact,” she said, adding, “By initiating the Hope Squad, she is not only addressing a crucial issue, but also leaving a lasting legacy of support and care for future generations of students.”

Lia said the plans are to expand the club as much as possible next year, with the goal not only to make students aware that these peers are available for them, but also to be sure parents know about it to help spread the word.

“I think our overall message is, it’s okay to not be okay,” she said.

“I just think it’s a super-great message,” she said, “and everyone struggles and everyone has their ups and downs, and that’s okay.”

Rosen expressed his admiration for the students involved, as well as the group itself.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Rosen said of the Hope Squad. “I think it’s exactly what this school needs. There’s no substitute, there’s nothing else that can do what the kids are doing.”

“I’d like to see it in every high school in Connecticut,” he added.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

Editor’s note: the article has been updated to reflect that seed funding for the Hope Squad was provided by Wilton Youth Council, which received a grant from the United Way of Coastal Fairfield County, and not directly from the United Way.