Today's teenagers face social and academic pressures that they may not believe they can discuss with their parents or teachers. But students at Arlington's Wakefield High School can talk about their concerns with other teenagers through the school's Peer Facilitator Program.
"Student-run programs have a better effect on students than lecturing," said Helene Glasgall, a Wakefield counselor who developed the 30-member support network four years ago. "Students are empowering students. They trust each other more than adults."
Peer facilitators listen and discuss issues with students that range from alcoholism to depression to relationships. Discussions between students are confidential.
All students who enroll after September and other students who request them are matched with facilitators, who show them around the school, answer their questions and lend an ear if they want to talk. Facilitators also conduct a two-day video/student presentation on peer pressure and "project success," which helps ninth-graders with the transition into high school.
"New students are just thankful to have someone to talk to," said facilitator Samarra Green, 17, a senior.
This year, group members are sponsoring an "On My Mind" program, held bimonthly after school. It deals with subjects such as teacher and student stereotypes. Last year, the facilitators conducted a "lunch bunch" discussion group on stress management.
Group members have met with the parents of graduating Randolph Elementary School students, most of whom eventually will attend Wakefield.
Together, they discussed the parents' concerns for their children as they enter seventh grade, including drug abuse and guns in school. Student facilitators also have talked with local Kiwanis and Red Cross groups about youth issues.
Last spring, group members visited with future Wakefield students at Kenmore and Jefferson intermediate schools to answer their questions about high school.
The facilitators also work in the community, both in nursing homes, where they play bingo, and at shelters that feed the homeless.
During the second year of the program, facilitators talked with faculty members so that the teachers could help them identify behavior, such as skipping school, sleeping in class or aggression, that might indicate deeper problems.
Behavior problems "don't mean they're a terrible person," Green said. "It just means that there is something else going on in their lives, and maybe peer facilitators could help them."
Yorktown High School is developing its own peer facilitator program modeled on Wakefield's. "Teenagers are very wise. If you give them the support and structure, they can accomplish a lot," Glasgall said. "They want to help each other."
Sophomore Amanda Baridon, 16, is in training to become a facilitator. When she was a new student at Wakefield last year, a peer facilitator helped make her transition easier.
"I felt accepted immediately," Baridon said. "It was easy to open up to her, even though she was a stranger."
Students interested in becoming facilitators must fill out an application, including recommendations from two teachers, a counselor and a peer. Students are interviewed and, if accepted, are required to attend a weekend retreat.
Retreat activities include untangling a "human knot". The group exercises build bonds among the students, forcing them to trust each other and challenge themselves.
"Just because you're scared doesn't mean you can't do it," said senior Allison Bristol, who has gone on the annual retreat twice. "You get so much support and positive feedback from the group."
Supervised training meetings are held after school to teach participants how to use open-ended questions, listening skills, decision-making, crisis intervention, and drug and alcohol education and referral.
Group members said they have grown personally from being involved in the program, including improving their confidence, communication skills and self-esteem.
"The training and experiences have helped me grow so much," said junior Susie Mannon, who has been a facilitator for two years. "It's helped in my relationships, not just with friends, but with my family."
Facilitators use the training techniques to help answer their own questions and solve problems.
"I use these skills with everyone I talk to without even realizing it," Bristol said. "Not giving advice is hardest. I have to practice keeping my hand in my mouth."