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Messages of hope and healing land in the community on butterfly wings

Members of the Furman PHOKUS executive committee (from left) Townsend Amick ’24, Hayden Hickman ’24 and Ali Tull ’26 with some of the Project White Butterfly packets the student group assembled in August 2023.

Last updated September 26, 2023

By Jerry Salley ’90

At their first meeting in August 2023, the members of Furman PHOKUS (Promoting Healthy Options through Knowledge, Understanding and Service) gathered to spread messages of hope and encouragement to people in the community struggling with substance use disorder.

“How do you become a butterfly?” began the message, printed on cards provided by the nonprofit Project White Butterfly. The answer appeared inside: “By wanting to fly so badly you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.”

Members of PHOKUS filled out each Project White Butterfly card with information on local addiction and recovery resources and handwritten notes of support.

On blank lines in the cards, there were instructions for where help could be found – Solutions Recovery Center, Pavillon and the Phoenix Center.

“They’re all community resources that deal with substance abuse and addiction recovery,” said club advisor Gwen Hirko, the health promotions coordinator for Furman’s Division of Student Life. “We made sure they were all free recovery resources.”

The cards also contained handwritten heart-to-heart messages.

“Every student wrote a sticky note to put inside the card,” said Hayden Hickman ’24, the club’s president. “Encouraging notes, like ‘You’re doing great,’ ‘This is the start of your journey’ and ‘This was meant to find you.’”

The club’s 20 or so members ended up with 70 cards zipped into plastic bags, ready to be left in places where they would be likely to be found by those who needed them. Hickman and a few other PHOKUS members headed down Poinsett Highway and into Greenville, leaving the White Butterfly packets in shopping centers, parking lots, side streets, alleys and other frequently traveled areas.

Project White Butterfly was founded in Cleveland, Ohio, by Sara Szelagowski, a recovering heroin addict. While she was mourning a friend’s death by overdose, Szelagowski found a symbol of peace, freedom and transformation in a white butterfly circling the yard. In 2019, she and other volunteers began leaving handwritten notes in areas around the city where she knew people went to use drugs.

One of the Project White Butterfly packets left by the PHOKUS student group in various locations around Greenville, South Carolina.

Szelagowski eventually expanded the grassroots effort, making customizable card kits available to other groups around the country. Ali Tull ’26, vice president of PHOKUS, learned about Project White Butterfly while at home in Ohio over the summer of 2023.

The club, which meets every Wednesday, will likely distribute more cards in the future, said Hickman, a health sciences major. PHOKUS will also continue its core focus on peer education on campus.

“Our mission is to make sure students know what their resources are and have access to them,” Hickman said. “We want to make sure they really understand the importance of not only mental health but physical health, nutritional well-being, sexual well-being – all kinds of health.”

Along with spreading the news about the resources available from the Trone Center for Mental Fitness, the group helps present an annual student health fair and other programs promoting mental health, nutrition, physical fitness, alcohol and drug safety, and sexual health. Recently, Hickman and her colleagues set up a table in the Trone Student Center to inform their peers about Mindlyte, a wellness app designed for college students.

“The group is a great student touchpoint for those things,” said Hirko. “Sometimes, we find that the information gets out to our student body a little bit better from fellow students.”

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