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“Dear Hope,” the success of a creative vision

Paul Falcone looks to the future of the community that’s helped thousands

By Sandra Mercer
On April 30, 2016

 Pictured above are Falcone (right) and two main contributors to “Dear Hope,” Zach Johnson (left) and Danny Kochanowski (center).
(Photo from Facebook)

 It is clear that issues surrounding mental health are plaguing our country. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2014 report, the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-34 was suicide. Overall, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States for all ages. One site, however, is working toward advocating for and supporting those who are struggling with their mental health.

Founded by Paul Falcone, a senior here at Westfield State, Dear Hope is a community-based website dedicated to creative work focused on mental health. 

“The biggest thing has always been bringing people together and community,” Paul said.

The site showcases poetry, photography, videography, artwork, and more. Their “Coping: This is Who We Are” series highlights personal stories from both those suffering from mental illness and those who know someone who does.

“Show me your writing, show me your poetry, your sculptures, your drawings, your music. I want to show it and I want to celebrate it,” Paul said.

Originally from Charlton, Massachusetts, Paul has been drawn to these more creative outlets since he can remember. Paul gravitated toward music when he received a guitar from his grandmother at age 12. Though at the time he was more concerned with sports, his mother forced him to attend guitar lessons and eventually his passion for music grew. 

This passion became crucial when Paul began struggling with depression around the age of 13. Through songwriting and music, Paul found an outlet. 

“My mental health wasn’t that great in high school, but I disguised it,” Paul said.

Despite his deteriorating mental health, Paul continued on in his musical pursuits as a way to cope. His former band, Scan the Sky, had a pretty large following in Western Mass, and the site’s name was taken from their debut CD, “Dear Hope.” Although the band broke up in 2012, Paul eventually went on to perform with another band, Sleep Season. “We Must Be Broken,” the site’s URL, came from Sleep Season’s debut album title.

In Paul’s junior year of college, he took Electronic Writing for the Media. One of the projects for the class was to create a blog and keep it going throughout the semester. Paul says that the creation of this site—now known as Dear Hope—was the turning point in his mental health.

Although a pivotal moment in self-realization, Paul admits that he needed a helping hand during this integral process.

“Even then I needed a push from Zach to get it going,” he said.

Zach Johnson, originally of Waltham, Mass., has been heavily involved in Dear Hope since its creation. Earlier in his life, Zach was a sports fanatic. He participated in football, tae kwon do, wrestling, and even went to All-States for track. Zach was also the head news anchor for Waltham News Now for a period of time.

“I always dreamed of being on ESPN,” he said. 

Freshman year of college, Zach ran track. Unfortunately, he suffered a devastating hamstring injury that plagued his whole body. He was thus unable to run track, and unsure of his fate. Deep down, however, Zach knew that he couldn’t run track forever.

“I believe in God, and he definitely had a plan for me,” he said.

Similarly to Paul, Zach took a creative writing class his junior year of college.

“I don’t like writing papers, but I do like writing about things that are going through my mind. My style is a little bit different,” he said. 

When Zach bought his first DSLR camera the summer before his junior year, things changed dramatically for him. Zach took this passion and ran with it.

“This was my stepping stone. I invested in myself,” he says. 

He and Paul took Intro to Photography together, but joked about their rough start.

“Our first assignments were awful,” Paul laughs. “I don’t think we were fully interested yet.”

As the semester progressed, they were given more freedom with their assignments. This was when things started to fall into place. They were more invested in their work, and their skill with the camera was improving greatly.

“For me, when I’m working on something, and I’m not fully invested, I’ll take shortcuts. If I’m invested, though, and I like what I’m doing, I’m in 300 percent,” Paul said. 

Their final project for the class ended up being one of the most prominent and popular parts of Dear Hope. This project grew to become the Consumed series, in which the photographs aim to depict what mental illness looks like on the outside. The black cracks—painted on their subjects with body paint—combined with their models’ commanding emotions sent a powerful message: “This can happen to anyone, regardless of your race, age, gender, how successful you are. Depression doesn’t discriminate against anyone. It can choose whoever it wants,” Paul said.

This project began as simply as it could: one camera, one battery, one model.

“We had to go to McDonald’s to charge the battery,” Zach laughed.

After the first Consumed shoot, the series continued and dozens of people got involved. More photos, more models, and more life was thrown into this series. The project got an immense amount of positive 

 

 feedback. The site drew in 5,000 hits in one week. 

“The plan was never for it to be this big. Nobody ever expected it to be this big. We just wanted to do it because we thought it would be cool,” Paul said. 

Paul even noted one message in particular that stood out to him. A young girl who saw this project and realized she was struggling reached out to him, saying that she had stopped cutting herself and told her parents that she needed to get help.

“It was the most surreal, humbling experience,” Paul said. “Those kinds of messages really give you purpose.”

Although many received the project positively, there was also some significant backlash from academia. One photograph in particular depicted a white model with hands, covered in the black body paint, that were grabbing at her. Some were upset with this choice, as they believed it perpetuated the stereotype of black male violence against white women. Although this was not the intention of anyone involved in the project, it is still an important viewpoint to consider. Paul personally talked with some of those upset by the image, and many insisted that the image be taken down.

Paul felt defeated. Everyone involved was so invested and passionate about the project, that hearing the possible faults in it was devastating. At first, he did not know what to do. The image had received so much approbation and brought in thousands of hits for the site. Ultimately, Paul decided to keep the image up, as the voices that were upset by the image were much smaller than the voices that were not. The true intentions of the photographs, combined with the truly powerful, positive feedback, was enough to convince Paul that they should stay.

Most recently, Zach shot the music video for MTV’s “The Real World” star Sabrina Kennedy, for her song, “If Only.” 

“This music video was the best thing to happen,” Zach said.

Kennedy loved the Consumed series, so when Paul and Zach proposed that they base the video off of that series she was all in. The song itself was about Kennedy’s own experience of depression following a breakup.

Along with elements from the Consumed series, the team incorporated some of their own specific ideas into the video. The included a lot of elemental aspects, like the water and bathtub scenes. 

“There’s definitely a lot we can improve on, but I’m proud of what we created,” Paul said.

“We’re not only getting better at our crafts, but we’re also getting better at understanding mental health,” Zach said

Paul and Zach are not the only two making Dear Hope the incredible site that it is. Alaina Leary, a 2015 graduate from Westfield State and a native Bostonian, is an editor, author, and social media contributor for the site. Alaina currently works full time as a social media editor and is studying for her MA in publishing at Emerson College. 

Previously, Alaina posted a “Coping” piece on the site about her family’s history with mental illness and her own struggles with PTSD. When Paul asked Alaina to join the Dear Hope team several months ago, she was working for “Doll Hospital,” a magazine dedicated to mental health, and he knew she would be a great resource for the site.

“I had previously published a piece on the site, and I thought it would be great to get more involved,” she said.

As for Alaina’s favorite part about working with Dear Hope? Using social media as an outlet to bring traffic to the site and spread the word. 

“I’ve been able to share several DH pieces on other pages’ social media that I manage, when it is applicable,” Alaina said. 

More specifically, Alaina felt particularly draw to the Consumed series, like many others were. Getting the word out about this project was something near and dear to her heart. She even wrote about the series for Germ Magazine. 

“The piece got a record breaking amount of traffic for our magazine,” she said.

Danny Kochanowski, author and editor for the site, has been an extremely valuable member of the Dear Hope team as well. Danny’s candid accounts of his own struggles with mental health, as well as his talents in both writing and editing, have only heightened his contributions to the site’s success.

“Danny was the first person who came to my mind, without hesitation, when I wanted to expand Dear Hope for the first time. Not only is he one of my best friends, but he has a way with words that is both poetic and knowledgeable,” Paul said.

Most notably, Danny has begun working as a Peer Advocate and Community Bridger for the Western MA Recovery Learning Community (RLC).

“In the peer model (as opposed to our current clinical model), I have found the empathy, compassion, and open-mindedness that the mental health system lacks. The wonderful people that I have met and I look to put the humanity back into the forever-overlapping process of struggle, recovery, and living a full life,” Danny says in his Dear Hope bio.

“As a psychology major and the president of Active Minds, Danny embodies everything that Dear Hope stands for and then more. I’m constantly blown away by every new article he posts and he continuously inspires me to be a better writer, and person, in the process,” said Paul.

Last, but certainly not least: Amanda Canale, social media coordinator and author. A current senior here at Westfield, Amanda originates from Pittsfield, Mass. and is a Public and Corporate Communications major with a minor in Women and Gender Studies. 

The newest member to the Dear Hope family, Amanda has stepped up to the plate and is thriving in her new role. Recently, Amanda has started creating small graphics depicting quotes from various pieces submitted to the site, and they have gotten amazing reception. 

Much like Danny, Amanda’s personal struggles with mental health were depicted in her own “Coping” piece a few months back. After being bullied throughout elementary school, Amanda found herself trapped in negative self-talk, insecurities, and depression. 

When Paul asked her to join the Dear Hope team, she jumped at the opportunity. A good friend of both Paul and Danny, Amanda credits her mental health self-discovery to a late-night conversation between the three of them that turned to the topic of childhood memories and depression.

“It may not have seemed like much now or to them, but back 

 

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then, it was the first moment I had realized that I was not alone in my struggles. There are other people out there who are feeling what I’m feeling and it’s okay! It’s okay to not always be okay, as long as I carried on,” Amanda said.

“My favorite part of working with Dear Hope is not only connecting with others who are struggling and validating what they’re feeling, but being able to educate others about not only mental illness in general but what it feels like, too,” she continued. “Like I said, I had never been able to make the connection between what I was feeling and what I had been taught as depression. 

So being able to educate others while doing it in such a creative way is amazing.”

As for the future, the entire team has high hopes. The team aspires to register Dear Hope as a non-profit by the end of the year and continue to grow the business. Discussion of merchandise is in the works, as well as the possibility of a short film and some new music.

Expansion of the Consumed series is also in the works. The team hopes to host an “open call” for anyone who wants to be involved, during which they have the opportunity to show up and be photographed with the signature black cracks painted on their skin. 

They hope to get in touch with other professionals so they can work collaboratively and build upon their skills.

Recently, Paul was invited to speak at the annual Mental Health America: Media, Messaging, and Mental Health conference this June in Alexandria, VA along with Zach and Danny. The team hopes to network, while also learning from other conference-goers.

“In the future, I hope DH will continue to grow. I know how important these issues are and I hope we will continue to explore them and invite diverse voices to publish with us. 

I think DH is the kind of community so many people desperately need, and that’s fantastic,” said Alaina.

“What it boils down to is that you’re not alone. There are other people like you,” Paul said.

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