Speak Up, Stand Up conference

More than 4,500 students attended the Speak Up, Stand Up conference, which emphasized suicide prevention. 

Carmina Gregorio’s passion for helping people developed from a troublesome time in her life.

“I’ve always had a passion for helping people because I wish someone had helped me when I was little,” Gregorio said. 

The West Point High School student said she is determined to learn the skills necessary to help her peers and attended the Speak Up, Stand Up, Save a Life conference for a third year.

The spirited event offers students a chance to hear from speakers and their peers on suicide prevention. This year’s event was held Wednesday, Jan. 21, at Grand Canyon University.

 More than 4,500 students from 157 schools and 54 school districts in the West Valley and beyond flooded the auditorium with purple and yellow T-shirts in support of the cause.

United Healthcare Community Planning sponsored the event. Its CEO, Joe Gaudio, said the event is meant to improve the well-being of the community.

“Our mission is to help people live happier lives and help make the health system work better for everyone,” Gaudio said. “We’ve gathered over 4,000 kids here at Grand Canyon University to help them be more aware of the warning signs due to suicide. Not only in themselves, but also in others.”

Gaudio said youth suicide is a prevalent issue in the state of Arizona and one on the rise. He said the suicide rate is up 25% in Arizona.

He said mental health can be a challenge for many students.

“These kids face so many challenges today trying to basically live a life,” Gaudio said. “It’s an issue and if we can get other kids to help identify those warning signs and reach out to other kids, we believe we can make a difference.”

One of the biggest misconceptions Gaudio sees when it comes to students who struggle with suicide is the parents never believe it could happen to their kids. 

“Kids have built up such defense mechanisms and such strong walls you can’t recognize the signs until it has become too late and they do harm themselves or they do harm to others,” Gaudio said. 

Gaudio said the conference is unique in it has multiple workshops where young students hear from their peers rather than from adults only, which helps them build rapport and trust, the latter of which, Gaudio said, is one of the most challenging. 

“The challenge is trying to convince the children there are trusted caring adults out there,” Gaudio said. “Kids by nature, particularly a child who is dealing with a lot of anxiety and adverse childhood experiences, they have a hard time trusting adults.”

Gregorio, 16, was someone who struggled with trust.

Today, Gregorio belongs to many different clubs at her school, putting her in the position to help others. She is an Avondale youth advisor counselor and does community service for veterans. 

But she said there was a time when she lacked confidence. Mostly, due to bullying.

Gregorio was born in Guatemala but moved to America when she was a kid and the only thing she wanted was to fit in with the rest.

“Everyone was skinny, I was chubby, and I didn’t feel secure about myself; I didn’t feel like I was likable,” Gregorio said. “And coming from a different country, you want to fit in.”

She said she tried getting help from the school, but the institution didn’t believe it was a “big deal.” 

Gregorio said the bullying, ultimately, pushed her to be a better person and overcame her challenges as she grew older. When she was 12, her counselor suggested she should attend the conference where she was immediately inspired by the work taking place.

“It was so emotional,” Gregorio said. “They actually put passion into what they were doing. You’re listening to what they’re saying and realize people go through that and people feel like that. It’s a big deal” 

Gregorio said she wants her peers to know their story can never be too small, and they should always be heard.

“It doesn’t matter what type of bullying it is. Bullying is bullying,” Gregorio said. “It makes you feel bad.”

In addition to hearing from local and national speakers like Jeremy Anderson, the attendees got the opportunity to watch a one-act play brought by the UBU Project, which focuses on suicide prevention, drug prevention and anti-bullying through arts integration like songwriting and theatre.

Speak Up, Stand Up founder David Simmons, brother of actor J.K. Simmons, is a director and producer who is no stranger to challenges like suicide. 

“I’m a thriving survivor of my own suicide attempt on March 21, 2009,” Simmons said. “I’m also a recovering alcoholic with 27 years in the program and I was the fat kid who got bullied in school.”

A play presented consisted of a group of teenagers discussing their lives and their experiences. All of which happened to someone in real life, Simmons said. 

“Today’s play was shining a light on the darker corners of what kids are going through today,” Simmons said. “I intentionally didn’t provide any sweet, easy answers because there aren’t any.”

Simmons said the power of the conference is in spreading the message.

“If there are 4,500 kids here, we dropped 4,500 pebbles in the pond and the ripple effects,” Simmons said. “You have no idea how many of these kids are struggling.”

As the conference grows, GCU is glad to continue to be a part of it, Executive Director of Academic Alliances Jennifer Jonson said.

As a former school administrator in the Glendale Union High School District, Johnson understands what it is like working with high school students. 

“There aren’t many conferences whose purpose it is to empower students as early as fifth grade to bring students together and build a plan for a campus allowing kids to trust the adults and to speak up when they know their friends are in trouble,” Johnson said.

 “We want everybody who is touched by Speak Up, Stand Up, Save a Life Conference to know GCU cares about them and this community,” Johnson said. 

Speak Up, Stand Up, Save a Life Conference is an opportunity for young students to learn how to overcome dark challenges and learn how to identify suicide signs in their peers. But it is also a place where they learn one of the biggest lessons Gregorio learned: They are not alone.

“Do not be afraid to speak up,” Gregorio said. “Everything happens for a reason. If you’re going through something rough right now, it is probably to build your character because you were brought to this world for a reason. You have to look at the bigger picture.”

For more information, visit speakstandsave.com.