PORTLAND — It was a cool, breezy Monday morning in Lincoln Park on Newbury Street.

But it was also World Mental Health Awareness Day. And the people assembled were gathering with a message of hope.

Last spring, 16-year-old Julia Hansen founded the Yellow Tulip Project, which aims to bring awareness of mental illness, after she lost two of her closest friends at Waynflete School to suicide within six months. Now a junior at Casco Bay High School, Hansen said the Yellow Tulip Project has taken off. The group has a website, and its Facebook page is closing in on 1,500 likes.

Hansen, her mother Suzanne Fox, Mayor Ethan Strimling and others gathered in the park Monday for the planting of the project’s first hope garden of yellow tulips. Hansen chose yellow tulips as a way to honor her friends: yellow was one’s favorite color, and tulips were the other’s favorite flower.

Hansen, who lives on Peaks Island and in Falmouth, said there was also symbolism in planting the flowers before winter.

To bloom, “they’ll have to push through the cold, frozen ground,” she said.

Hansen, who said she struggled with depression in her own life, said that even in dark and ugly times, it’s important to be able to find hope.

“Even in the darkest, cold places, hope happens,” she said just before planting the first bulb.

Strimling, who said he was approached by Hansen last May about the hope garden, said, “almost all of us” are touched in some way by mental illness, and that it can lead to barriers and isolation. He praised Hansen for taking something so often “behind closed doors and making it a conversation.

“Once you start talking about it and working on it together, you can find so much beauty,” Strimling told the crowd.

Fox also said mental illness “touches everybody,” a disease “so prevalent,” but not often spoken about.

“We don’t talk about mental illness; we don’t talk about depression,” she said.

Fox said the goal was to make sure people who may be struggling don’t feel alone, and that something as simple as asking a person if they are OK can have a positive impact.

Ryan Esbjerg, a Portland resident and founder of the organization Flex Your Face, was also in attendance Monday. Flex Your Face started as a Facebook group meant to inspire positive relationships and getting people together. He said he met Hansen and thought the Yellow Tulip Project was “amazing.”

“The more we connect with each other … the more good that can happen,” Esbjerg said.

Hansen said she hopes there will be another ceremony in the spring, when the tulips have begun to sprout from the ground.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Julia Hansen plants the first yellow tulip bulb in a new community hope garden in Portland’s Lincoln Park Monday, Oct. 10, as her mother, Suzanne Fox, and her friend, Ryan Esbjerg, look on. The Casco Bay High School junior founded the Yellow Tulip Project last spring, after two of her friends at Waynflete School took their own lives.

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