Finding reasons to appreciate life

They look like trees. But the leaves are hands that are covered in student notes -- family, food, sleeping, rain and other things they are grateful for in life.

The trees have been displayed since November at Providence High, where students reflected on spirituality, thankfulness and gratitude. It is one of the student-led activities designed to help good mental health and social well-being take root in every student.

Providence and Hough high schools swiftly prioritized social and emotional health after each school lost a student to suicide on the same day in February 2018. Dr. Tracey Harrill, of Providence, and Dr. Laura Rosenbach, of Hough, worked together to find positive resources to help their students cope. As leaders of high-achieving schools, the two principals recognized their students face unique pressures and stress.

"We were calling each other for moral support and researching different programs," Dr. Harrill said. "Students don't seem to know how to draw on support systems – how do you get through when things are tough? The priority was to help them develop resiliency skills, to learn how to persevere."

The principals chose Sources of Strength, a youth suicide-prevention program designed to use peer social networks to change unhealthy norms and culture that can lead to suicide, bullying and substance abuse. The program focuses on promoting connections between peers and adults, along with multiple sources of supports for students when life becomes difficult. Providence and Hough are the first schools in the state to use the nationwide program, which is expanding internationally.

Erika Thurman is one of a trio of Providence teachers who made a three-year commitment to develop the program at their school. She said the community needed a way to come together – staff as well as students were grieving.

"As a staff, we were feeling a lot of grief and pressure," Thurman said. "We just felt we needed to do something. All we can control is here at school and change has to come from the student body."

Peer leaders were selected to pioneer the program and response was overwhelming. A pool of teachers and counselors selected a diverse group of about 60 students in grades 10 through 12 from 200 applications. Training was held for advisers and peer leaders, as well as all-faculty training. This semester, 22 freshmen will join the peer group, which will eventually grow to about 200 students.

1.25.19.SOS_inside pic.jpgThurman said the group is not a club and doesn't have a set structure. The goal is to spread messages of hope and health. Peer leaders meet in a large group once a month and have smaller working groups that meet during school. Activity ideas, or campaigns, come from the students, who had three campaigns last semester, including the thankfulness trees. Three campaigns are also planned for this semester: "Connect," about normalizing help-seeking and support; "We Belong," about inclusivity and celebrating the diversity in the school; and "What Helps Me," remembering, sharing and discovering what they can do to help deal with overwhelming emotions.

Peer leaders have also made classroom presentations to freshmen to make the transition to high school less overwhelming. They highlight aspects of the Sources of Strength wheel -- which includes supports such as mentors, medical access and healthy activities – and emphasize that each student is a valuable part of the school.

"It would've been cool if I had had that presentation when I was a freshman," said senior Whit Williams. "Underclassmen don't have an emotional connection to what happened, but we're starting them on a positive note. We want to leave a legacy."

Like Whit, seniors Gabi El-Massri, Dami Ayinde, Shelley Saffan and juniors Sunnya Hadavi and Isaac De Luna said they want to make a difference at Providence, where everyone has high expectations. They want to ensure their classmates recognize the pressures they face and have the proper coping mechanisms.

"There's a lot of competition here and you're held to a certain level," Dami said. "Since last year, there's been a negative vibe, and I want to be a positive."

Half the cost of Sources of Strength was funded by CMS Student Services. Dr. Harrill said faculty training at both schools was paid with a grant from the Foundation For The Carolinas.

Peer leaders are still finding their way, but Dr. Harrill said they are already on par with other Sources of Strength schools, which average four campaigns each year. The hope is that the community will also become involved and financial help is welcome to help fund the program, from training to fees for on-call program support.

Sources of Strength reaches out to Providence and Hough when needed.

"The Sources of Strength staff members are very collaborative with us," Dr. Harrill said.

Peer leaders said the program will need time to take hold but it's been worth the effort.

"It takes about three years to see a culture change and it's tough to be patient," Gabi said. "But I want to be that person who's a light, to tell them, 'I'm going to be here and you will be, too.'"