Raffi DerSimonian and Johann Sabbath, friends whose businesses rent offices in the U.S. Custom House on Fore Street, thought it would be fun to turn on the stereo and have a few people over for a holiday party.

“One thing leads to another, and we have over 200 people here and corporate sponsors,” Sabbath said Dec. 17 at what was dubbed Hope Fore the Holidays. The party raised $18,000 for youth-led mental health nonprofit Yellow Tulip Project.

“I’m so moved by the simplicity and power of their message, which is really about spreading hope,” DerSimonian said. “We’re all gathered here tonight to celebrate hope. What gives me hope is seeing this community come together in such a profound way.”

While individual tickets were $50 per person, 25 couples instead made the $250 commitment to join the host committee. Joining DerSimonian’s firm ERI and Sabbath’s firm Brady as corporate sponsors were Foreside Real Estate Management, Bangor Savings Bank, The Boulos Company, Domain Realty and Opticliff Law.

Thanks to in-kind food contributions, guests enjoyed international hors d’oeuvres, from Mami’s Japanese street food to Olive Café’s Mediterranean baklava. A jazz trio played holiday favorites, and Portland Maine Walking Tours showed people around the historic building.

“It’s nice to see the businesses supporting the cause, from big ones like Starbucks to local businesses like Standard Baking Co.,” said Sabina Sammon, whose Yarmouth High School field hockey team fundraises for Yellow Tulip Project.

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Around the great hall were large black-and-white portraits by photographer Lissy Thomas, part of a Yellow Tulip Project exhibit called “I Am More: Facing Stigma.” Each portrait is accompanied by a self-description that includes five “I am” statements – including but not being defined by mental health struggles.

“They say things that are vulnerable, like that they struggle with depression or their sexuality,” said Chloe Bibula, a Yarmouth High School student. “It’s about spreading awareness that you don’t have to be alone.”

In Maine, the Yellow Tulip Project has over 240 youth ambassadors at 50 schools throughout all counties. The #bashthestigma movement is growing nationally. But its roots are here, where the nonprofit grew out of Julia Hansen’s grief and search for hope after losing two close friends to suicide her sophomore year in high school. She co-founded the nonprofit with her mother, Suzanne Fox, in 2016.

Host committee member Erin Belfort, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Maine Health, provided statistics on what she described as a “youth mental health crisis,” worsened by the pandemic.

“One in four youths are struggling with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety,” Belfort said, adding that rates of emergency room visits are high. “With the right care, kids can and do get better. Stigma can be a barrier to care. If you or your child were diagnosed with diabetes, you would take insulin. If you needed glasses, you would get them. Why is mental health so different? Yellow Tulip Project is a wonderful youth-led organization here to smash the stigma. And together, we can do that.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at [email protected]


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