Students and mental health advocates gathered in Congress Square Park in Portland on Sunday to plant flowers and celebrate the international expansion of The Yellow Tulip Project, a locally founded nonprofit that seeks to “smash the stigma” surrounding mental illness.

A crowd of about 50, many of them area middle- and high-schoolers, dug in the park’s gardens, sang, practiced Reiki healing and shared their stories.

“It is beyond belief how we have grown and spread,” co-founder Suzanne Fox said in a short speech to the group.

The movement began with “one lone voice,” she said — that of her daughter, Julia, who lost two close friends to suicide in late 2015 and 2016.

Taking inspiration from the yellow tulip, which survives punishing winters to bloom each May, Julia and Suzanne Fox co-founded The Yellow Tulip Project.

Now, 275 ambassadors in several countries are spreading the project’s message of hope and combating the stigma associated with mental illness.

“We’re tired of this elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about,” Suzanne Fox said at the event. “The only way to normalize things and have a meaningful conversation is to (actually) have a conversation.”

Marlee Mellen, who studies at Casco Bay High, said the program had helped her to cope with severe anxiety at school.

Before a classmate invited her to join a local branch of the group, Mellen said, “I thought it was normal to be terrified of coming to school every day.”

“I felt so loved and so valued,” she said of the club. “I had a space where I could be loved and accepted.”

Suzanne Fox recently took a leave from her master’s program in social work at the University of New England to devote her time to the tulip project.

Next week, she’ll be the first UNE student to present in Reykjavik, Iceland, at the Arctic Circle Assembly, an annual gathering attended by representatives from 60 countries.

Mental health is a concern in colder climes, where winters are longer and darker and people are often isolated, and those challenges jibe with the metaphorical journey of the yellow tulip.

“The yellow tulip is the flower of hope. Tulips need to go through that cold, hard winter,” Fox said. “And then they come up.”

To wrap things up, attendees moved to the flower beds and dropped bulbs into the freshly turned earth. Marking each plant was a wooden dowel on which someone had written an uplifting message.

One said, “Hopeful because people are talking.”

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