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Helping students help each other

It has been a long road, but the new peer counseling program at Wilson High School is finally underway.by: CONNECTION PHOTO: DREW DAKESSIAN - Twenty-four peer juniors and seniors are available to lend an ear to their fellow students in a safe environment through Wilson High School's new peer counseling program.

This two-pronged program was the brainchild of Kathryn Wolff, who is a counselor now in her sixth year at Wilson. Prior to becoming a school counselor, she worked at a school district in Colorado where every school had a counselor-taught peer counseling-type class.

“They had a little different flavor at every school, but it was very inspiring," Wolff recalled. “It was part of what inspired me to go back to school and become a school counselor, and in the 10 years that I’ve been working in Oregon now, I had floated this idea probably four different times to different administrators.”

Her diligence, it seems, was justified.

“I have a very strong belief in kids’ ability ... to be extremely effective in helping their peers. It’s well known that kids talk to kids about their problems before they come to an adult,” she said. “My vision for this was to be not only a really valuable kind of a career-focused class for students who are interested in the helping professions, but also a way to have more feet on the ground in Wilson High School to support all of our students.”

Wolff finally found a supporter at the administrative level when Brian Chatard assumed the Wilson principalship in September 2012.

“I waited till about October, and I presented my proposal with some data, and he was interested and committed to helping. He wanted us to go forward and make it happen,” she said.

With the green light from Chatard, Wolff started developing a curriculum for the two-pronged program’s class component and asking teachers to recommend incoming 11th- and 12th-graders to enroll in the class and, beginning in the winter 2014 semester, act as actual peer counselors. Wolff said the ideal applicants were open-minded, reliable and trustworthy, eager to acquire applicable skills and give back to the community and come from all walks of life at Wilson; a high GPA, she added, was not necessarily required.

“I always liked to help people, but the main reason I was really excited about joining (the peer counseling program) at Wilson is because I wanted to do something to make this more of a community instead of a place you just go to learn and leave,” said Liam Reese, a senior. “I thought it would be a great way to bring the positivity.”

Sixty students ended up applying, completing a four-page application of “some pretty in-depth, personal questions,” Wolff said, and, if they made it to the second round, participating in 15-minute formal interviews with three members of the Wilson faculty and staff, including a counselor, the school psychologist and the campus monitor.

The 24 students who rose to the top of the applicant pool spent the first semester of this school year, Wolff said, “working really hard. There was a lot of team-building at the beginning, because these students are entrusted with confidentiality with other students, so I felt it only fair that they had to get to the point where they would share their stories with each other and have to trust each other first.”

“I kind of went through life not having anyone really to talk to at all, so when the opportunity came around to participate in a group to do that, I thought it was great,” said Vincent Lawson, a junior. “I always wanted to be a part of a group in my school community.”

One of the first lessons the rookie peer counselors had was in the concept of validation.

“It’s one thing to tell someone, ‘Oh, cute shoes,’ but it’s another to say, ‘You know, I’ve noticed you really take a lot of care with your appearance,’” Wolff explained. “It’s looking to the deeper level to actually acknowledge something that someone has some control over. ... That shows I’m paying a little closer attention to see who you are and acknowledging something good about you.”

They also learned about social ease: “How does one start a conversation (with those) they don’t know and help them feel comfortable ... lots of listening skills; learning to ask the right kinds of questions; helping to listen for and help students identify values — not the peer counselors’ values, but the student they’re talking to; helping them bring those values to the surface can help inform decisions that they maybe are trying to help a student make for themselves. (They learned) how to stay in the helping role and not give advice, but help students find their own solutions through brainstorming and predicting consequences.”

For their first-semester final assessment, each peer counselor was observed role-playing an actual counseling scenario with one of seven advanced theater students.

“For the peer counselors, it was as if they were really meeting with a student, and they had to take it from the beginning to the end — from explaining their role and what kind of confidentiality they can offer, to listening and helping the student feel comfortable, to working through some decision-making, to wrapping up the whole thing,” Wolff said. “They were recorded and evaluated by the observer, and then they did a self-evaluation after listening to their recording again, and then met with me to sit down to review all of that and kind of reflect on what skills they had as strengths and which ones they were still working on.”

In January, the inaugural class of Wilson peer counselors had the chance to put their knowledge to practical use and engage in formal peer counseling.

“We are staffing 11 different shifts a week, so every day at lunch, every tutor time and every fourth and eighth period — the end-of-the-day periods — we have two students available,” Wolff explained. “So ... there’s another peer counselor who’s nearby and available to talk to a second person if they should want somebody to talk to.”

The counseling will take place in a classroom previously used for French class that has been turned into a safe environment with comfortable spots to sit and talk.

“When people walk by the room ... they peek through, and I’m hoping that they’ll actually decide to work up the courage to come in and talk to us, because we are here to help them,” said senior Taylor Stroup.

And the peer counselors are helping out beyond their own dedicated classroom.

“So far...the students have greeted and given tours to seven students who are new to Wilson, and it’s a higher-quality tour, I’m sure, than when we’ve asked TAs to do it,” Wolff said. “The peer counselors really know how to start a conversation, maybe invite the new kid to have lunch with them, introduce them to some friends, find about interests, maybe tell them about a new club that they’re aware of — just a more full kind of welcome to the school.”

They have also given presentations in ninth-grade classrooms, letting the freshmen know that they are available to talk to if needed, because “everybody’s got stuff,” Wolff said, “and it doesn’t have to be something that people feel bad about.”

“For me, the reason I joined this class is because from eighth grade to freshman (year) the transition was a bit difficult, and I wished there was a community or a class that supported (us) throughout the process,” said Yonus Hammer, a junior. Having this class and being presented to Wilson is a great reward to all of us, and having joined this class I’m helping kids that are transitioning to Wilson ... freshmen as well as sophomores.”

According to Wolff, some issues the peer counselors are equipped to help their “clients” deal with include struggles in school, fights with friends or challenges at home.

“I hope that ... the student body can realize that they’re not alone. ... You might feel like you’re alone; you have no one to talk to, but there are actually people knowing what you’re going through — and that they have a support group you can go talk to,” said Emma Fortmiller, a senior.

Wolff said she is hopeful — and expects — that “we should be able to have this as a continuous service at Wilson High School from here on out, so juniors that choose to reapply and are chosen again for the class next year will be ready to roll at the beginning of the school year, while the new students next year will be learning the first semester and then added to the resource pile of kids that can be working the shifts and everything by the second semester.”

But while the peer counseling program is quickly becoming a well-oiled machine, it isn’t losing its heart.

All in all, junior Emily Davis said, “We’re really just here to be a support system for anyone who needs it.”

Drew Dakessian can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and 503-636-1281, ext. 108.