One reason why Alex Heisler ’21 wanted to become a community advisor at the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons was to be more involved with civic engagement and organize meaningful events. When she received an email about local organizations coming together to plant “Hope Gardens” to bring attention to mental illness, she knew that could be one, and she was all in.

“I was like, ‘oh my God, I want to do this, like let’s make this an event,’” said Heisler, a biology major with a concentration in neuroscience and an anthropology minor, who wants to work in mental health.

Planting “Hope Gardens” is an initiative of the Yellow Tulip Project, a Maine-based NGO founded by a then-high school student, Julia Hansen, with a mission of smashing the stigma around mental illness. These gardens bring communities together during Mental Illness Awareness Week to talk about mental health and to collectively plant yellow tulip bulbs, which then survive the winter and bloom with hope in spring. 

“It’s a really powerful metaphor,” said Heisler, who, with other Colby community advisors, joined a large collaboration between the Yellow Tulip Project and numerous local organizations—Waterville Creates!, Kennebec Behavioral Health, FEDCO Bulbs, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Waterville Lions Club, and Colby Museum of Art, to name a few—broadening the event’s reach. “And it’s all about having an open space to bring together youth community leaders and talk about mental health stigma within the framework of hope.”

Flowers, she said, are a physical representation of the community’s dedication to reducing stigma.

Alex Heisler ’21 joins other community activists as they plant tulip bulbs near Waterville’s Head of Falls in October. The tulip plantings were part of observations of Mental Illness Awareness Week, intended to reduce the stigma surrounding the illness. (Photo by Jason Paige Smith)

On Oct. 12, approximately 50 volunteers, including Colby students and faculty, from various organizations planted more than 1,000 tulip bulbs in three sites—the Riverwalk at Head of Falls, Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons, and Veteran’s Memorial Park. The Colby Museum also planted its own “Hope Garden” by Seven Walls on Oct.15. 

Among the participants was Eileen Sophia Chung ’22, who heard about this community event through her work as an intern at the Colby Museum. But it was after listening to a TED Talk by the Yellow Tulip Project founder that Chung felt connected.

“Basically [the NGO] started with her two best friends who committed suicide. One of them really liked the color yellow and the other one really loved tulips,” Chung said, finding the project’s mission to be very powerful. “I think that is very important because often even in my own culture, in Hong Kong or Taiwan, these things are not talked about, and people do not realize they might have certain issues, and they’re not abnormal. It’s just because they’re dealing with certain things.” 

Emmanuel Salas ’21 meets with community activists gathered to publicize an effort to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. “I’m really glad I came,” said Salas, who heard about the event from his community advisor at Foss Hall. “We’re planting tulips for a good cause—I think this is just wonderful.” (Photo by Jason Paige Smith)

Abi Bloom, a Yellow Tulip ambassador, spoke at the ceremony in Veteran’s Memorial Park about the importance of the event, saying it doesn’t help anyone to pretend mental illness doesn’t exist. “But today we are actually acknowledging that it exists, and it’s a real problem that impacts real people. And we’re helping better our community, even if it’s one tulip at a time.” 

Waterville native and Yellow Tulip Project board member Raffi Der Simonian gave a speech at the park, saying, “I stand before you today filled with equal parts gratitude, pride, and hope. Gratitude for the immense effort put forth by so many different community entities … Pride because I’m from Waterville, and to see my beloved hometown come together in such a meaningful way means a great deal for me. And hope because we’re here and we’re talking about a really important issue that affects all of us on some level.” Der Simonian also noted that he’s increasingly hearing conversations around mental health.

Heisler, the Alfond Commons community advisor, pointed out that the planting project was community-initiated and collectively driven. “This project has been so cool just because I’ve gotten to sit down with so many of these people [from different organizations] and actually gotten to know who is here,” she said. “They’re all super passionate about mental health stigma, so it’s been a really rewarding project to work on.”