In October 2014, I lost my son to suicide after a long and very secret battle with depression. So secret, in fact, that only he knew of his illness until the day of his death.
Upon his passing, Lucas’s peers shared countless stories of him initiating conversations, often with a just a simple “hello,” at a moment of crisis that resulted in the prevention of a suicide attempt.
Inspired by these stories, we launched The Lucas Fiorella Friendship Bench and the #yellowisforhello campaign on April 21st, 2015, on what would have been Lucas’s 20th birthday.
The goal was simple – to inspire more of the peer-to-peer mental health conversations he started while he was alive, and to connect students suffering in silence with available on-campus and in-community resources.
In its first year, the campaign was to be just a few benches at Lucas’s university and high school as a test, to see what the response might be from students.
Within days of announcing the campaign, we had orders from 5 schools. Within 30 days we had tens of thousands of views on social media, and requests coming in from around the globe.
We quickly decided that it was completely within reason to expect that this campaign, along with the now iconic yellow Friendship Bench, be unveiled at every secondary and post-secondary school across Canada.
Although, in all honesty, I never expected to ever see this in my lifetime.
Four Years and Counting – Building a Legacy
Now, four years later as we celebrate another birthday and anniversary of the official launch of the #yellowisforhello campaign, I realize that we’ve achieved a rather significant milestone; one that I was not at all expecting to see anytime soon.
As of Lucas’s 24th birthday, we have unveiled over 50 benches across this country with multiple requests coming in daily.
What started as one-school-at-a-time initiative has moved to school board-wide, multi-bench installations. What was once a here-and-there unveiling strategy has given way to Cross-Canada tours, unveiling benches and delivering mental health keynote presentations to students, parents, and community leaders.
What began with a conversation initiated by my son has resulted in an increase in the number of students talking about mental health, and a marked rise in students asking for help where we’ve unveiled Lucas’s bench and campaign.
Join me a trip down memory lane with some key highlights from our short 4-year history
- Ontario unveilings at Carleton University (2), Humber College (Toronto), Niagara College (St. Catharines), University of Waterloo, Holy Trinity Secondary School (Oakville), and St. Marguerite D’Youville (Oakville)
- “Team Robots,” a group of Lucas’s friends and family come together for what has become an annual fundraising effort for The Kid’s Help Phone.
- Ontario unveilings at two Humber College campus, Waterloo University, and Fletcher’s Meadow Secondary School (Brampton)
- British Columbia unveiling at Simon Fraser University (Vancouver)
- Quebec unveiling at Champlain College (St. Lambert)
- First of many keynote addresses on mental health for parents unveiled by Sam Fiorella
- British Columbia bench unveilings at W.L. Seaton Secondary School, Sutherland High School, University of British Columbia (Vancouver), Vancouver Island University (Nanaimo)
- Ontario bench unveilings at Centennial College, St. Mary’s College (Sault Ste. Marie), Northern Secondary (Toronto), Royal Military College (Kingston), 2nd bench at Niagara College (Welland Campus), Trent University, a second bench at Humber College, and four benches at Seneca College’s campuses
- Alberta bench unveilings at Strathcona High School (Edmonton) and 2 at University of Alberta (Edmonton)
- Saskatchewan bench unveilings at Saskatchewan Polytech (Regina)
- Manitoba bench unveilings at Grant Park Secondary (Winnipeg)
- First annual Cross Canada Tour in Support of Mental Health Awareness Week (installed 5 benches in 5 Provinces in 5 days).
- First “Ride For Mental Health,” a motorcycle ride/fundraiser by corporate sponsor Distinct Infrastructure Group
- First annual Golf Tournament, hosted by The Burlington Firefighters Benevolent Society and corporate sponsor New York New York Men’s Grooming Lounge, to support fundraising efforts
- British Columbia unveilings: 2nd bench at Vancouver Island University (Victoria), University of Victoria (Victoria), Penticton Secondary School, and three benches at all Sheridan College campuses (Oakville, Mississauga, Brampton)
- Ontario unveilings at King’s College/Western University (London), Wilfrid Laurier University, McMaster University (Hamilton), University of Guelph, and a second bench at Humber College’s Lakeshore Campus
- Newfoundland unveilings: Gonzaga High School (St.John’s)
- Sam Fiorella recognized by the Canadian Mental Health Association with a “Difference Maker Award”
- Sam is keynote speaker at York District School Board’s Mental Health Conference
- Documentary “One More Light,” featuring Lucas’s story and The Friendship Bench launches at The Ted Rogers Hot Docs Festival (Director: Kristen Mallows)
- Ontario bench unveilings: 2 benches at Notre Dame Secondary (Burlington), Aldershot High School (Burlington), St. Martin’s Secondary School (Mississauga), and a second at Centennial College (Markham Campus)
- Saskatchewan bench unveilings at Saskatchewan Polytech campuses in Moose Jaw, Prince Albert, and Saskatoon campuses
- Alberta bench unveilings: Canadian Mental Health Association (Calgary)
- Manitoba bench unveilings: 6 benches unveiled at all six high schools within the River East Transcona School Board (Winnipeg)
- Newfoundland bench unveilings: Keyin College (Marystown)
- Passed the 50-bench milestone
- First non-school unveiling of The Friendship Bench (CMHA Calgary)
- Sam unveils the results of research on Effects of Social Media on Student Mental Health in a keynote at Social Media Camp conference in Victoria, BC
With little volunteer support and a shoe-string budget, we now have 54 benches installed at 51 locations across Canada, from coast-to-coast.
The unveiling ceremonies, my lectures to students and parents, and my mental health keynotes have reached over 100,000 people in this country alone.
I’ve had the privilege of speaking to tens of thousands of students and faculty as I’ve crisscrossed this country dozens of times, and have been blessed with new friends and allies.
I’ve also been horrified by countless stories of personal struggle and tragedy. So, it has not been without its challenges.
As volunteers, we all have families and jobs that take up most of our time. Maintaining volunteers has been a bigger effort than anticipated, which means our capacity to manage incoming requests has suffered.
There are opportunities we’ve missed or mismanaged due to that lack of volunteers.
My own mental health has been questionable over the past few years as I travel along this journey of grief, which has only exasperated our ability to adequately manage the demand.
I’m truly sorry for those that we’ve not been able to support.
So What’s Next for The Friendship Bench and #YellowIsForHello
Yet, we continue to be inspired by Lucas’s efforts and the stories still being shared with us.
Stories of those who have been inspired to reach out to fellow students, inspired to reach out to professionals asking for help, and those who are no longer silent about their struggles.
So, we are taking this summer to build up our volunteer base and renewing our communication plan for the 2019/2020 year, which I believe will be our biggest year yet. This year you can expect:
- A new limited-edition podcast series featuring the many stories shared with me by students
- A monthly “action newsletter” for faculty, counsellors, and student volunteers at participating #yellowisforhello schools
- New mental health awareness campaigns to be announced in August 2019
- A mental health summit for student leaders from participating schools
- More parent-focused lectures delivered across the country
- And, of course, many more yellow Friendship Benches
We hope you’ll join us on this journey.
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- Our campaign website: www.yellowisforhello.org
- Campaign hashtag: #yellowisforhello
Thanks to all the family, friends, volunteers, faculty, and students who help keep Lucas’s legacy alive and help reduce the number of students who suffer in silence.