First Lady Casey DeSantis sits next to Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran during a Board of Education meeting at St. Petersburg College on (July 14, 2021. Credit: Danielle Brown
As Florida students work through the stresses that come with learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, some may find comfort by talking with peers about mental health concerns.
Some middle and high school students will be able to turn “hope ambassadors,” as First Lady Casey DeSantis has announced an expansion of a program that encourages students to mentor each other, work together to assist in charity events, and encourage an overall positive and supportive school environment.
DeSantis’ Hope Ambassadors program will expand to 100 schools across Florida, according to a press release.
“It is heartwarming to see the Hope Ambassadors program grow so quickly to meet the needs of our faculty, students, and parents,” DeSantis said. “These new clubs will create positive settings for children to volunteer, mentor their peers, and help foster kindness. I am overjoyed by the drive and compassion of Florida’s youth.”
Since DeSantis started the initiative, it has grown from 25 schools during the 2020-21 school year to 100 schools across the state.
According to Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Gov. Ron DeSantis, the first lady hosted a a number of children during a round-table discussion Friday about the program, but it was not filmed.
“Participants were sharing personal stories about sensitive topics like mental health and bullying, and we wanted everyone to feel free to speak without the feelings of self-consciousness that can come with being recorded,” Pushaw said in an email to the Phoenix.
The Phoenix asked for further details, such as where the round-table took place and whether any government officials were there, and is awaiting response.
The state Department of Education describes Hope Ambassadors clubs as a “youth peer-to-peer student mentorship program that will recruit student volunteers to work with their peers and help create an environment of kindness and compassion in their schools.”
Participating schools are eligible for $500 grants to launch clubs during the current school year, according to the DOE.
Some schools already have Hope Ambassadors clubs in place.
For example, the Palm Beach County school district posted a YouTube video in March promoting the program at William T. Dwyer High School. The video shows students writing positive notes and coloring intricate mandala-themed coloring sheets to relieve anxiety.
School districts with one or more schools participating in the Hope Ambassadors program are:
Alachua, Baker, Bay, Brevard, Broward, Charlotte, Citrus, Clay, Collier, Duval, Escambia, Flagler, Gadsden, Gulf, Hernando, Hillsborough, Holmes, Jackson, Lake, Leon, Levy, Manatee, Marion, Martin, Miami-Dade, Okaloosa, Orange, Osceola, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Polk, Putnam, Sarasota, St. Lucie, Sumter, Suwannee, Volusia, and Walton.
Hope Ambassador programs for lab schools at Florida State University and Florida A&M University are also listed, as well as a program at a Palm Beach County charter school called South Tech Academy.
The program received a donation of $100,000 from Simply Healthcare Plans Inc., which coordinates Medicare services.
COVID’s affects on student mental health have been an on-going concern. In October, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice released a fact sheet to assist students struggling with COVID-related mental health problems, including depression and suicidal thoughts.
Casey DeSantis, who chaired the Florida Children & Youth Cabinet, has pushed for initiatives addressing stigma associated with mental health problems, developing curricula to inspire resilience in collaboration with Florida athletes, and collecting data to identify promising ways to discourage youth suicides.
She has since stepped down from the youth cabinet, according to an announcement made on Oct. 8, days after Gov. DeSantis revealed that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Her position was filled by Florida’s new and controversial surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo.
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