It’s been an incredible 15 years and we want to share with you Peggy Kubert’s, Director of Education, acceptance speech for “The Beacon Award,” which she gave at this year’s gala!

I am honored and proud to have played a part in the shaping of Erika’s Lighthouse for the last 13 years.  Even before I became involved I knew of its work – I had seen it develop, I heard Ginny speak and I knew this group was going to make a difference and we would be a good fit. So it has been easy for me to represent and promote Erika’s Lighthouse because I believe in our mission and I know we have a great product and there is a great need today as there was 15 years ago when no one was doing what this group set out to so.

The story of Erika’s Lighthouse is both simple and in many ways extraordinary.  In some ways we are the little engine that could – we kept chugging along – at our core we are a small grassroots organization that began with a tragic loss and a vision to make an impact in our local community and then we pivoted to become a national presence. And we are a force in this field that has been recognized and sometimes copied by the big guys – the big depression centers, universities and hospitals doing this work.  Sometimes we laugh that their program sounds exactly like something we wrote!

So let me share with you how we got to where we are today.

Here is what happened –

Within the first 2 years the board had gotten a commitment from all the middle schools in New Trier Township to start educating their students about teen depression, how to ask for help for themselves or a friend and how to have tough conversations. Erika’s friends had gone on to high school and they began our first teen club and began educating high school students and educators on the same topics. We wanted to make sure that teens knew they were not alone, that help was available, that you cold feel better, that there was nothing to be ashamed of if you struggled with depression. The tone that set us apart had been established – we were addressing this in a fact based, hopeful tone and it set us apart.

So when I began in the fall of 2006 I had a core group of school staff ready to be trained and programs to be nurtured. Ginny and I shared an office with two huge desks that we got from New Trier and 1 chair for visitors and my files were small – I  actually had everyone on a rolodex. But our name and our mission was being recognized and calls were coming in from surrounding communities wanting to do what New Trier township was doing. And our files got thicker and thicker.

As I watched Erika’s friends educate young people  I knew we needed to capture their powerful message – we developed our first class room program using the powerful message of Erika’s friends as our first video based classroom program.   The first edition of our classroom program became a nationally based best practice program with American Foundation of Suicide Prevention and Suicide Prevention Resource. Once we featured it on our websites and at conferences – we were now offering our programs nationally.

We are not a group that sits still.

Flexible and accessible resources on the web

As our programs were being used nationally we recognized that we needed to redesign our classroom programs to be more turn key so educators who would never meet us face to face  can use our programs. And our educators tell us that our programs are so accessible and easy to use and have included everything they need so they don’t need to do extra work. We redesigned our website so we can immediately capture who is using our resources across the country and we can reach out to them and help them experience our tone and hopeful message. All of our classroom programs and resources are on our website and remain free of charge to schools.  We just want schools to embrace the hopeful tone that we approach this topic.

Authentic and heartfelt programs

We also knew that since teens in Kentucky were using this program and needed this education as well as teens in the urban schools of CPS or Los Angeles, our programs needed to be diverse enough for teens anywhere to relate.  We developed two additional programs – one for middle school and recently one for high school.  These video based programs are so authentic and so heartfelt that we heard just the other day that a group of middle school students actually applauded after the video to cheer on the brave teens who shared their stories.

Our teen clubs are now expanded to include middle schools and we have a club in Florida and Oregon and California as well as clubs in metro Chicago area breaking down stigma and creating school environments where it is OK to ask for help. Ultimately, we want to be out of business, but as long as there is a need for depression awareness we plan to be there as the “go to resource” to help youth find a vocabulary to talk about it and knowledge of what to do to help a friend or what to do when they are down. People often ask how we do what we do – isn’t it depressing and of course there are stories we hear regularly that are so very sad.  But we also get to see the affects of our program and we focus on prevention.

I will share one last story that illustrates what we are all about.  I was recently with a group of teachers and I asked how many of them learned about depression when they were in middle school – a small group stood up to share that they learned about depression in 7th grade with the Erika’s Lighthouse program and now they were teaching it to their students!

What motivates us – it is knowing that we are helping a generation of young people embrace a different view of mental illness then was in place 15 years ago. So with all of your help and dedication of our board and our staff we have grown from one school, one community to this year alone we have our programs have reached 100,000 youth in over 300 schools in 38 states and 3 countries.

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