It was the summer before their junior year, and St. Michael’s College seniors Danny Divis and Justin McKenzie were stuck in heavy traffic after visiting friends in Boston.
With time to spare, McKenzie said he started to process, out loud, the recent suicide of a former high school classmate, a three-season athlete at the academically intense University of Pennsylvania. Both hockey players at the Colchester college, Divis and McKenzie said they know the high-pressure balancing act that comes with being a student athlete firsthand.
When the school year started up again that fall, they floated the idea of hosting a mental health awareness game to their athletic director, Chris Kenny. He jumped at the idea, the duo said, but suggested they extend the endeavor to a campus-wide effort beyond just one hockey matchup.
And, McKenzie said, the rest is history.
Nearly two years later, their organization has become a St. Mike’s staple and has raised nearly $3,000 for mental health charities. Students are frequently seen sporting signature purple and white T-shirts with the phrase “You are loved,” boldly emblazed across the front and have grown used to the presentations Divis and McKenzie organize at sporting events year round.
“Both of us have been approached by people thanking us,” McKenzie said, adding, “It’s not like stardom,” with a laugh.
Divis, a Pennsylvania native who battled anxiety and depression throughout his teen years, said being vulnerable about their own experiences has made fellow students especially receptive to the advocacy.
“It’s not the easiest thing to share at first,” Divis said. “I was pretty nervous, but it’s also therapeutic in a way because you’re getting it off your chest and helping others.”
Recently, he and McKenzie, a New Jersey native, received recognition on a national stage. The pair are two of the five finalists up for the annual Hockey Humanitarian Award, presented each year at the Frozen Four to college hockey’s “finest citizen.” Announced in April, the foundation will make a donation to the charity of the winners’ choice.
Divis and McKenzie have been roommates and friends since freshman year and said they didn’t foresee this success when they sat in their common room brainstorming a name for their budding group. After settling on the alliterative “Hope Happens Here,” they debuted their presentation at a volleyball game.
Merchandise sales have hugely impacted their impressive donations. In addition to the T-shirts, Divis and McKenzie have developed bracelets and stickers and are working on creating even more products. It’s a small campus, McKenzie said, but he still notices unfamiliar faces wearing wristbands or shirts here and there.
They’ve also taken the show on the road, presenting at Enosburg High School and the University of Vermont. A UVM student recently told them their work inspired the launch of a similar campaign.
“It’s not under the Hope Happens Here name,” Divis said. “But that doesn’t really matter.”
Legacy is a prospect Divis and McKenzie have begun to consider with graduation day in May approaching quickly. Divis, an English major with a minor in business, said the project has directly impacted his career goals. He hopes to attend law school after his time at St. Michael’s comes to a close, eventually pursuing work in public advocacy.
Together, Divis and McKenzie have even discussed turning Hope Happens Here into a standalone non-profit once they settle into their professional lives.
In the meantime, they’ve recruited half a dozen St. Mike’s student athletes to keep HHH running. Still, McKenzie said it will be tough to hand over a project that became an integral part of his life.
“It’s in good hands, but we’ve run it for the last two years,” McKenzie said. “We want to make sure they’re ready to go.”