BYU entrepreneurship student Gracie Hammond combined personal mental health experience and Utah-specific research to kickstart Project Cheers, a new Provo-based business that brings individuals affected by mental illness together in community and celebration.
Described by Hammond as a “mental health-minded organization,” Project Cheers provides community events focused on raising awareness for mental health issues that provide creative outlets for those with mental health struggles.
Hammond, a 21-year-old from Ladera Ranch, California, was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder as a teenager. After years of treatment, different medications and self-care, Hammond felt inspired to help others on the road to healing as well.
In founding Project Cheers, Hammond met with fellow BYU business students committed to providing avenues of mental health support for anyone in need.
Hammond said she realized that one of the most powerful and healing aspects of her journey was the social safety net she found and cultivated around her. Hammond wants Project Cheers to be that social safety net for others.
“We help people to connect with each other and realize that they’re not alone with their struggle. Having continuing events will help people to find that connection and that sense of community,” Hammond said.
To provide the social safety net that Project Cheers hopes to, they rely on published research to help educate and elevate participants.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults experience a mental illness in any given year.
The Utah NAMI website defines mental illness as medical conditions that affect thoughts, emotions, moods, interpersonal relationships and effectiveness of managing day-to-day activities. Utah NAMI reports that individuals are more likely to develop other serious health problems if they have mental health illness.
Mental illness is just as prevalent in youth and young adults as the rest of the U.S. population, with 30% of university students reporting that they were affected so severely that they struggled to function over the previous year, according to NAMI.
As Hammond saw herself struggling to function and find healthy ways to cope with her illnesses, she began writing letters to herself and collected them into a book to help “cheer her on.”
“I was going to name the book ‘Cheers.’ I loved the idea that there was someone there cheering me on all the way,” Hammond said.
Mental illness is common and people are becoming more supportive of those struggling, according to Christopher Hurd, a patient care technician at Utah Valley Hospital and supporter of Project Cheers.
Hurd, a 23-year-old student studying to eventually apply to medical school, has worked in the medical field for more than two years. Hurd was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder in high school and is passionate about normalizing mental health struggles.
“While working in health care, just about everybody that I’ve met on the patient side has prescriptions for anti-anxiety and anti-depressants. It’s a very common and very normal thing to struggle with mental health,” Hurd said.
Hurd once felt like he could not take the medicine he needed due to negative stigmas around medication. He believes in the importance of having a social safety net for when someone is struggling to take steps toward improving their health.
Hammond is grateful that Project Cheers is receiving so much support. The entire team hopes that the business will continue to grow.
Justin Perez, 20-year-old pre-business student from New Jersey and co-founder of Project Cheers, met Hammond in a class for students passionate about positive social impact.
Since Perez has joined Project Cheers, he has taken on the logistical side of planning events and making sure they have the funds to provide the best quality of events for participants.
“Project Cheers serves as an outlet and connection where you can try new things, discover new things with either friends or new people and find something that you enjoy,” Perez said.
Perez also brings his musical background to the organization as a source of inspiration for events. He often turns to playing or listening to music to help him when he needs to process difficult emotions.
“I’ve seen the way creative outlets affect my life, and I want the same opportunity for everyone else,” Perez said.
Hammond and Perez both relied on creative outlets to get through difficult times. These experiences mulled around in Hammond’s mind until she found the right inspiration for something like Project Cheers.
Kamaya Wixom, Hammond’s friend and current roommate has watched Project Cheers come to life from its inception. Wixom recalled Hammond talking about her business ideas even while the two of them lived abroad in France for several months.
“Gracie’s always kind of had that drive, power or ambition. It was obvious that she was going to accomplish something like this. She was going to be the one to make that happen,” Wixom said.
Wixom said she was apprehensive about Project Cheers at first, but later saw it in action and saw how excited Hammond, Perez and all the participants were about the events.
“Gracie found partners who seemed to really work with her and bring different skill sets to the table. They all had a passion for it,” Wixom said.
As mental illness has become a prevalent issue, Hammond and Perez agree that a business like this has potential for large social impact.
“We want to get started this summer and have tons of events for people to come to to be able to experience joy, happiness and creativity in the community. We’re looking for volunteers, anyone who’s looking to help and be a part of this or just participants to come and enjoy it,” Perez said.
Hammond and Perez would also like to see Project Cheers eventually grow and benefit more than just the Provo community. Before that can happen though, Hammond sees a lot of potential for growth in Provo by creating specific support groups, including one for depression in nature.
Hammond described these support groups as small groups that would gather weekly for inspiring events and opportunities to connect. Depression in nature would be a safe space for those struggling with depression to connect with the world and people around them and share personal experiences.
“I feel the happiest whenever I’m outside. It’s just something that has been so healing for myself, and I know scientifically is healing for a lot of different people,” Hammond said.
Hammond hikes, runs and spends as much time outside to help her mental state. While Hammond is currently on a road to recovery, her healing journey has not been an easy one, said Hammond’s mother, Katie Hammond.
Gracie Hammond’s high school years felt isolating, and she turned to her family for support. Katie Hammond described herself as “Gracie’s person” to whom she could turn to with anything.
“It’s pretty amazing that Gracie’s turned this struggle into something that she can do to help other people. And, in effect by helping other people, she’s helping herself as well,” Katie Hammond said.
Katie Hammond has been impressed with her daughter’s determination through the difficult times.
“She’s been determined and has been since a young child. She’s also a dreamer, and she loves being creative in all sorts of ways, and just experiment with what she could do in life,” Katie Hammond said.
To those interested in getting involved with Project Cheers, Gracie Hammond guarantees opportunities to make new friends and walk away feeling happy at her events.
“You can also come and learn how to support your friends better, or any one in the future that you might come across that is struggling because there are so many resources. Learning how to support someone through mental illness could save their life,” Gracie Hammond said.