About 15 years ago, Clark County, Washington experienced a devastating rash of teen suicides. This left the community shocked, saddened and wondering how to change the trend.
Today community leaders are rewriting the story by making it easier than ever for teens to find hope—with support from their peers and help from a promotional pen mascot known as Peppy Penerson.
Rewriting the Future for Teens in Crisis
When faced with the crisis of teen suicide, county government officials, faith communities, businesses, local elected officials and youth pulled together and forged a solution. Their goal: Create a teen-to-teen support line, allowing teens in crisis to have frank and anonymous conversations with trained, supportive peers. Thirteen years later, the Teen Talk phone line is still going strong. Today, Teen Talk’s email and online chat options give students even greater access to help. The target audience for the Teen Talk line is primarily students ages 15 to 19 in Clark County.
Answering the Call
Such a broad demographic makes serving this group a sizable task for the Teen Talk’s 18 dedicated volunteers, who range from 15 to 20 years old.
Our volunteers are superheroes!
Each volunteer trains for 32 hours before hitting the support lines. All told, they take about 100 calls per month from students in crisis, providing essential support and referral services. While Teen Talk line has limited hours (about four hours each weekday), a 24/7 community crisis line bridges the gap for students in need of immediate assistance.
The Power of a Promotional Pen
Recently, Teen Talk added a new member to their team. Mascot Peppy Penerson is a smiling, feather-haired pen (also known as the Wild Smilez Pen). It may seem a curious choice as a promotional product for such serious subject matter. In truth, having a fun, gender-neutral mascot like Peppy Penerson has created online engagement with students through social media, spreading the word about the support line and making the service approachable. The concept of Peppy, Peppy’s name and persona, and every picture and video of Peppy are all the result of the creative and dedicated work of current and past teen volunteers.
Teen Talk Program Coordinator Kris Henriksen says Peppy’s approachability has opened the door to a significant number of new conversations each month. It’s no wonder, considering Peppy has loyal followings on Instagram®, Twitter®, and Facebook®. Fans post photos and video of Peppy doing everything from dressing in costume for Halloween to riding unicorns and snowboarding. The bottom line to Penny’s popularity is, of course, that the mascot opens the lines of communication and rewrites the future for students who are struggling.
“For us to have another 17 conversations a month through Peppy’s influence is significant, and Peppy is getting more popular quickly for a community our size.” -Kris Hendrikson
Peppy’s popularity aside, the peer-to-peer support aspect of the crisis line is essential, Henriksen says, particularly when tackling issues like family stress, school pressure, relationships, drugs and alcohol, or personal identity.
“Even if someone can’t fix it, just having someone to listen can be hugely helpful,” she explains. “People really like that they can chat about music or things that happen at school. I think they are the experts. I marvel at their ability to give unbelievable support and compassion, and they take it extremely seriously when they are here.”
Volunteers routinely provide callers with positive peer support and problem-solving as well as referrals. All calls are confidential. In cases where subjects legally mandate reporting to officials, volunteers are skilled at ensuring those students get the help they need.
Peppy Promotions Outside the Classroom
Peppy Penerson is also building awareness outside of the school walls. The mascot is a popular promotional product at resource fairs and events. The giveaway draws in tentative teens who might otherwise be too timid to approach a teen resource center booth. Peppy has also been used during what’s known as Challenge Day.
“We facilitate an all-day event where we get 100 students and 25 adults in a room so they can get real with each other about the truth of their lives and who they are. It’s powerful and emotional and amazing,” explains Henriksen.
During the course of the day, participants are asked to write a card to someone who means a great deal to them. “I love when they get the pens, and we have 125 people crying and writing cards to people they care about. And they get to keep the pen. So I see them sticking out of everybody’s pockets. It’s pretty fantastic,” she says.
More than a Mascot
A memorable mascot and promotional pen is one thing—a mascot that furthers a mission is another. “Our line fundamentally believes in kindness without judgment. That’s what we wake up to do every day when we are here,” says Henriksen. “So I am really glad that a pen could allow such an unexpected, creative way to share kindness and a smile with people.”