WESTERVILLE, Ohio (WCMH) — With young people going back to school, many students are finding it challenging to cope with the stress caused by the return to school.

With the uncertainties of COVID-19 only adding to those struggles, Westerville City Schools is entrusting their students to be a resource for their peers battling mental health.

“This started with students coming to us and saying we want to be part of a bigger thing as it relates to mental health education and suicide prevention,” prefaces Tami Cole-Santa, the Westerville City Schools Mental Health & Wellness Director

With the new school year comes familiar struggles for many students returning to the classroom.

“A lot of kids get stressed out during these times. You have to get back into your routine, get back to waking up early; it’s just a lot,” admits Reign Winston, a Westerville South senior.

But even the return to in-person learning has seen COVID-19 stressors resurface for those struggling with stress, depression, and anxiety.

“I’m not sure we’re seeing anything different. Maybe just an elevation and a bigger presence of what was already existing,” Cole-Santa describes.

After doing research on supportive program, Cole-Santa identified “The Hope Squad” — a mental health and suicide prevention education program, that empowers students to support their struggling peers.

“They can just come to us, and talk to us, and trust us that we’re just here to listen and try to talk with you about it,” explains Westerville South sophomore Zoe Guice.

The program is designed to educate students like Winston and Guice the warning signs and appropriate questions to ask to help identify someone who may be struggling.

It also let’s them know when a situation should be escalated.

“It really nerve-wracking to express your feelings and tell people how you’re feeling if you don’t know. So, it’s good to build their trust,” admits Guice.

“We just extend their network and extended their tools and strategies so they can not only help themselves but help a lot of other people that may be bringing heavy topics and situations to them,” Cole-Santa adds.

The program will begin at each of Westerville’s three high schools, before trickling down to grades K-8, and eventually, even parents.

“All of us on the team are community members, we’re parents, we’re business owners. We know how important supporting mental is to our kids foundationally,” says Juli Kernodle of the Westerville Education Challenge.

It’s a long-term vision made possible through funding from the WEC.

“The foundation of Westerville Education Challenge is to make sure every child feels supported, and heard, and seen and feels like they’re safe. And The Hope Squad checked all those boxes for us,” Kernodle adds.

But COVID-19 and the Delta variant are creating more uncertainty for school communities, with students wanting nothing but to make a difference for those searching for hope.

“I just hope to be able to change someone’s life. To help people get on a different path,” Winston admits.