Hailey’s Voice of Hope will bring instructors from the Jordan Binion Project to Hillsborough County Public Schools to train local educators in a mental health awareness program that will be taught to local high school students. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Binion Project/Facebook)

The pain never goes away.

But, for Chris and Lisa Acierno, there is a way to deal with it.

By starting a foundation, called Hailey’s Voice of Hope, named for their daughter Hailey, who was 17 when she took her own life in 2017,  the Arbor Greene parents are aiming to bring awareness to something their daughter struggled with — mental health issues — and the stigma associated with those issues.

The foundation recently announced that it has partnered with the Hillsborough County School District and the Jordan Binion Project (JBP) to provide training that will pave the way for mental health awareness to be taught to Hillsborough County students.

JBP is a nonprofit organization based in Washington state, created by parents who also lost their son to suicide, also related to mental illness. That foundation has spread a mental health awareness curriculum throughout the state, with a goal of getting the training into all high schools across the country.

The Washington-based nonprofit’s first entrance into Florida is here in Tampa, thanks to Hailey’s Voice of Hope. Instructors from JBP will offer two training sessions in April. Those who complete the workshop will be “trainers,” who can then train teachers to be able to present the curriculum directly to students.

The program is designed to help students identify signs of mental illness and provide resources to help those who need them. It is targeted to high school and eighth grade students.

“We’re a small foundation,” explains Lisa, “and this is something we can afford to do that will impact a lot of kids.”

Hailey Acierno

She says the cost, which is about $12,000 to cover the expenses of the trainers who will travel to Florida, is a fairly small amount that will have a huge impact. The curriculum itself is provided for free to the schools.

The money to pay the expenses was raised primarily through a golf tournament to benefit Hailey’s Voice of Hope held last fall, which brought in more than $15,000. A second annual golf tournament is planned to be held this October.

Acierno hopes the training will have a ripple effect. Once some trainers begin training teachers, and teachers begin implementing the program, she hopes other teachers will want to be trained. As the word spreads, Lisa expects that other schools and school districts will want the program brought to them, as well.

She believes the training is desperately needed for students in today’s schools.

“I have kids who reach out to me by phone or through Facebook messages and tell me their mom doesn’t believe that there’s an issue,” she says. “I’m hoping this will do some good for kids to help them figure out how to talk with their parents better and get some resources to give them help.”

A Focus On Mental Health

Hillsborough County Public Schools District 3 School Board member Cindy Stuart says that mental health issues are a strong focus in Florida schools right now.

“This is unique in that it’s being funded differently than the typical state or federal funding,” she says. “The Aciernos raised the money to bring this to the district, and they are passionate about being sure that something different gets done to fill the gaps in the system.”

Stuart says that the people on school campuses who have the most training in mental health issues, such as school psychologists, don’t interact with each student on a daily basis. “This program will educate and train and inform our teachers — the people who are in front of our kids every day,” she says.

Elizabeth Tanner, supervisor of emotional wellness, and Holly Saia, director of student services, are two district employees who have been working to bring the JBP program to Hillsborough County Schools.

“This program caught our eye because it’s so comprehensive and gives people the big picture of many types of mental health illnesses and resources,” says Tanner. “Sometimes, it’s very easy to be knowledgeable about medical-physical issues, but medical-mental health issues can be more challenging.”

Tanner and Saia explain that part of the training will be to brainstorm how to roll the curriculum out in local high schools, whether it, eventually, will be presented to all schools or just in certain classes or to certain students. 

At this time, none of those things had yet been determined.

However, Tanner and Saia agree that anyone who is trained and wants to go back and immediately implement the program at their schools are welcome to do so right away.

“This curriculum is very beneficial,” Saia says. “We’re excited to see a curriculum this in-depth that they are willing to share, free of charge.”

The two training sessions in Tampa will be held Monday-Thursday, April 22-25, at Keiser University on W. Waters Ave. in Tampa.

The two-day workshops are open to all Hillsborough County teachers and staff, with some seats reserved for representatives of private and charter schools, as well as from other Florida counties. 

To learn more about signing up for this training, contact Lisa Acierno at foundation@haileysvoice.org.

Acierno says there has been a great response to the program so far. Within a couple of weeks of announcing the training, she says that more than 100 spots were already reserved.

“I’m going to one of the trainings myself, so that I can train teachers in the future,” Acierno says. “This is my way to cope.”

For more information about Hailey’s Voice of Hope, visit HaileysVoice.org. To learn more about the Jordan Binion Project, visit JordanBinionProject.org.

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