Peers reach out to peers

Peer Outreach students engage in team building activities outside the YMCA teen center. —Nell Coogan

By Danielle Hopkins

Intense discussions and trust building activities were the focus of this year’s peer outreach seminar held during a two-day retreat last week at Alex’s Place.

Forty students and ten teachers participated in the retreat. School adjustment counselor Amy Lilavois and Director of Guidance Mike McCarthy started the retreat in 2005 as a way for students to feel comfortable seeking help and guidance from their peers. “There is so much pressure in today’s society that overwhelms our students and to have kids that are trained in looking out for each other and who better understand the issues they can handle and the ones they should bring to an adult can continue to make our school a more compassionate and safe space,” Ms. Lilavois said.

Students learned about the qualities of a peer leader, how to be a good listener, and the helping steps–a 6-step action plan students use when helping friends.

“Although the material we cover is basically the same year to year, each retreat is unique because of the personality mix of the new students and the senior facilitators who bring their own styles to the retreat,” Ms. Lilavois said.

Senior facilitator Whitney Schroeder has been a member of Peer Outreach since her sophomore year. “I think Peer Outreach does make an impact even if it isn’t always noticeable. Just having people in the school who have gone through the training is significant because they are able to help the students in their own friend groups,” Whitney said.

“The senior facilitator’s main role is to present the material and lead the program’s large and small group activities in such a way new students feel comfortable participating,” Amy said.

“The great thing about being a facilitator was helping all of the new members learn skills that will enable them to make an impact in the community,” Whitney said. “The only thing I would do differently about peer outreach is make it last for a whole week.”

Senior facilitator Emma Bunker was also nominated onto peer outreach her sophomore year. “What I really took from this particular retreat was how close these 40 plus students can get within just two days through discussions and activities,” Emma said. One of the main lessons Peer Outreach teaches is knowing your limits and when it is time to get an adult or someone else involved. Peer outreach teaches students how to handle situations in a proper way and be a person peers can seek out for help. “The biggest impact peer outreach has on the community is allowing students to have a person they can go to that isn’t necessarily an adult or guidance counselor. It builds a trust among everyone in the school in knowing this peer will seek out the right help,” Emma said.

Freshman Morgan Estrella and junior Belle Hattingh were both nominated this year and participated in the retreat for the first time. “Peer outreach really showed me how to be a better friend and help others when they need it,” Morgan said.

“The retreat really showed me that you can actually make a difference in someone’s life if you just reach out,” Belle said.

JP Alves has gone through the retreat twice both as a freshman last year and a sophomore this year. “I wanted to be there in support of the two Brazilian students who got nominated but were feeling uneasy about participating in the retreat because of their lack of Ednglish,” JP said. JP exemplified the essence of a peer outreach student during the two days when he helped these students to feel at ease during the retreat. “The biggest thing I took away from the retreat this year is that you can never know anybody from just looking at them,” he said.

“It is always remarkable to see the transformation in the participants from hour to hour,” Amy said. “At the beginning of day one nobody knows what to expect so you can feel the nervousness in the room. As the day goes on you can see in their faces how much they are listening and taking in the wealth of information we are giving them and how connections between students, who wouldn’t necessarily even speak to each other in the halls, are being formed.”