Operation Bear Hug goes virtual, perseveres through COVID-19

Charlotte Lang

Operation Bear Hug’s fourth year has taken a virtual turn as a result of the state’s COVID-19 quarantine.

The event, hosted by Colorado State University’s Student Veteran Organization, began as a way to raise suicide awareness. It typically takes the form of a team-based 5K obstacle course around campus every spring. 

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According to a post on the event’s Facebook page, the in-person obstacle course was canceled out of caution and social responsibility regarding COVID-19.

“However, the mental health of our veterans and community remains our focus,” the post said. “In recognition of the mental health challenges and possible suicidal thoughts that arise due to the very real possibility of the isolation and financial stress that many people face, this year we are taking OBH virtual.”

The new challenge, which began April 18, now asks participants to film a 15-second or longer video of a wall sit while holding a sign explaining why they’re holding onto hope. The challenge continues as participants then tag other people to take part.

“It can take less than a minute to write and pose,” said Josh Johnson, president of CSU’s SVO. “It’s an easily attainable thing in a time when schedules are up in the air and stressful. We didn’t want this to be a huge task.”

Johnson said the support and response he’s seen from the University and the surrounding community have been awesome.

“This is not a one day event; there’s a ripple,” Johnson said. “As long as people are posting, we’ll keep it going.”

With its online format, people outside the Fort Collins community have been able to show their support and take part in the challenge. Johnson said there have been posts from out of state participants, CSU graduates and other organizations involved with other Colorado schools.

“It’s a way for people to reconnect in this time,” Johnson said. 

Support has also come from people in CSU’s Student Leadership, Involvement and Community Engagement office, as well as the Associated Students of CSU. Johnson also said there’s been a lot of support from people involved with the University’s social media.

 It’s been great. When we started, we saw a lot of comments from people saying they were wondering what we were going to do. It’s fun, and it’s … good (for) community engagement.” -Tiana Bañuelos, president, Operation Bear Hug

Early numbers showed at least 20 posts with over 50 tagged accounts. Johnson said SVO has been saving all videos and stories so that, when the challenge is over, they can see the impact it’s had.

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Operation Bear Hug President Tiana Bañuelos said the organization has seen an overwhelming eagerness from people who want to take part. 

“It’s been great,” Bañuelos said. “When we started, we saw a lot of comments from people saying they were wondering what we were going to do. It’s fun, and it’s … good (for) community engagement.”

Bañuelos said she wasn’t sure what to expect in regards to the response the challenge has seen, and it’s something that’s been part of the excitement of it.

“The new virtual community for this is across the world,” Bañuelos said.

Johnson also said the response has been something he’s enjoyed seeing.

“It is wonderful to see work pay off,” Johnson said. “It’s great to see the smiles people have when they’re doing this. You can tell that they’re happier.”

The change to a virtual format entered the conversation toward the final days on campus before spring break, Bañuelos said. As talk of classes moving online became more popular, the organization realized the possibility of needing to move its event online, too. 

“We didn’t want to soften the message of suicide prevention and team-based work,” Johnson said. “We wanted to keep that message alive. That’s where the tagging part came in. How can we stay connected? And that’s also why we’re having everyone focus on why they’re holding onto hope.”

Bañuelos also spoke about the significance of staying connected despite social distancing.

“We still believe that holding onto hope is important,” Bañuelos said. 

Posts for Operation Bear Hug can be made on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. It has no set end date, so anyone is welcome to take part at any time.

Editor’s note: Josh Johnson is a member of the Board of Directors for Rocky Mountain Student Media.

Charlotte Lang can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @chartrickwrites.