Think back to your senior year of high school. What were you doing? For those of us who were disciplined, some of us may have been diligently applying to colleges for the upcoming year. Others of us may have been dragging ourselves to school each morning with that “I’m-so-over-this” face that only teenagers can give. And perhaps the rest of us may have been doing the minimum amount of work possible in order to enjoy our final year as kids. At only 17 and 18 years old, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of us were largely thinking about ourselves. (And that’s okay! It’s part of that age in development!)
But when you meet three seniors who are the polar opposite, who are working harder than ever, and who are putting others before themselves, it makes their story all the more captivating. Kayla Simas, Ava Lanza, and Julia Lanza, all 17, are seniors at King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham, Massachusetts, and they are the founders of The Sunshine Shop, a social enterprise that creates and sells jewelry in creative ways to raise awareness about suicide prevention.
Kayla, Ava, and Julia became friends in middle school, and when they began their sophomore year of high school, they stumbled upon an opportunity to join a DECA class at school, which is a course that would allow them to develop their marketing and business skills in order to try their hand in entrepreneurship. When the three were considering how they wanted to dedicate their time and energy in this class, they quickly realized that they were united by a deep concern and care for mental health.
“We did this project coming right out of COVID where we all struggled with our mental health and didn’t know where to go or where to access help,” Kayla says. “Not everyone knows that there are hotlines and resources. We wanted to build awareness about resources that are comfortable for our community to use.”
The girls decided to apply as sophomores to launch a project together within DECA’s “community-giving” category, where they would seek to support a nonprofit organization by raising funds or collecting donations. They asked to support Samaritans, but their teacher denied their initial request.
“Our DECA advisor was nervous for us because he said that suicide was a heavy topic to work on,” Julia admits. “So, we spent the year showing him that we were mature and responsible, and the next year he finally supported our request to launch the Sunshine Shop.”
The Sunshine Shop sells two key handmade products – a pearl necklace and bracelet that are interspersed with smiley face charms. They sell the necklace for $15 and the bracelet for $10, and they donate 100% of their profits to Samaritans. Over the past year, they have raised more than $3,000 to support suicide prevention.
And while the products are adored, what makes the Sunshine Shop girls truly unique is the way in which they sell their products. Rather than looking for a fast sale with no interaction, Kayla, Ava and Julia have created events where they are able to enter into conversation and build awareness about suicide prevention while selling their products.
“A lot of people are scared to talk about suicide,” Ava explains. “By running events, we can bring light to mental health and teach our community about suicide. We aren’t focused so much on the money.”
The girls say that they are proud of the events they have organized because it has brought together a lot of different groups of people from their school. The Sunshine Shop girls set up a booth at their town’s community fair to sell their jewelry and hand out business cards with information about suicide on the back. When purchasing any product, buyers were asked to spin the “wheel of positivity”, which would give them a challenge to do throughout the day to bring positivity to the world.
The girls also organized two yoga events for young people in the community. At the yoga events, everyone was invited to make their own suicide prevention necklaces to take with them. Ava, Julia, and Kayla also organized an event at their school where they invited Steven Karaiskos, Samaritans’ Senior Director of Community Education & Outreach, to speak about suicide prevention. At that event, the girls invited their peers to make bracelets as a way to remind themselves about everything they learned that day.
Ava, Kayla and Julia say that every event they have hosted has been worth the extra effort because they have witnessed how it impacts individual people.
“At each event, even if it was small, we would have at least two or three people come up to us, thank us and share a personal story about suicide prevention. It was a reminder of why we are doing this,” Kayla says, and Julia adds, “It has been so eye-opening. We have learned a lot about how mental health affects people by talking to people at our events.”
And their hard work has paid off. Kayla, Julia, and Ava won the district DECA competition. They went on to win the state competition, and they had the opportunity to compete in the international DECA competition. At the final event, the Sunshine Shop unfortunately didn’t place, and the girls say that the competition was fierce. But they say that competing at that level also helped them realize how they can improve and where they want to go next.
“We realized that we are able to build awareness about suicide prevention, but we weren’t as focused on selling the products,” Ava says. “We focused mostly on our events.”
Recognizing awareness-building as a strength of theirs, the Sunshine Shop girls are taking on a new challenge during this school year, and they once again want their efforts to benefit Samaritans. They will be competing in the DECA “Business Solutions” competition, where they are challenged to work with an organization to help them come up with a solution to a challenge the organization is facing. Kayla, Ava, and Julia are partnering with Samaritans to help build awareness about the Hey Sam program, a support text line that is for young people and staffed by young people. The girls are building some of Samaritans’ first TikTok videos, and they recently launched a HeySam t-shirt campaign in their school.
The girls say that creating The Sunshine Shop has changed their lives for the better.
“Every time someone comes up to us and thanks us, I feel so proud of us,” says Kayla. “We are three teenage girls, and this is what we are doing with our time.”
“I used to not say a word when it came to talking to people,” Ava admits. “This project and Samaritans have helped me grow into a whole different person.”
“We have never had a group in our school talk about suicide from a kids’ point of view. We are the first students to bring it to life from our own motivation and our own perspective,” Julia says smiling. “When I see the support everyone has given us, it means that we are having an impact.”
The girls think back to that one day in 7th grade when Samaritans came to talk at their school for the first time. It would prove to be a day they never forget and one that had a huge influence on their future. When asked what they wish the world knew about Samaritans, the Sunshine Shop girls say the answer is simple.
“You are not the only one. Don’t give up. If you are struggling, don’t be embarrassed to use the helplines. They are there for a reason.”
Thank you, Sunshine Shop girls, for helping to build awareness and for playing such an integral role in suicide prevention.