Instead of students keeping their problems to themselves, Warsaw Community High School is encouraging them to reach out to someone they can trust through a new schoolwide program.

“It’s a program that we’ve introduced to the high school called Sources of Strength. It is an evidence-based program that focuses on promoting eight core strengths in our life that can help us to build strength, to build resiliency. It is a suicide prevention, bullying prevention, substance abuse prevention program. But instead of focusing on the negative trauma side of things, we build up hope, help and strength in students,” said Sarah Graham, co-director of guidance at WCHS.

The eight core strengths are family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality, medical access and mental health.

She said the school is trying to focus on those core strengths in helping students learn to build them up “so that at any given time in their life they can turn to one of those and to a trusted adult that can help them to find strength to get through whatever they’re facing.”

One way the program has been promoted at WCHS is through the “Trusted Adult Campaign.”

“All of the students in the school were encouraged to identify a trusted adult on a sticky note, and we talked about who a trusted adult is and why it’s good to turn to  them if you need advice, if you need help or support. We then took those sticky notes and we made a huge Tiger head out of them and we’re going to make one or two more throughout the school. It’s a visual for the kids that adults can be trusted, you can reach out for help. So it’s all about breaking the silence,” Graham said.

Students are encouraged to reach out for help if they need it “and the way to get help is to really focus on those eight strengths because if I have healthy activities or a mentor or I have spirituality that I can turn to, that can help me get through a hard time in my life,” she said.

Seventy students are “Peer Leaders” who have been trained in Sources of Strength. They went through a one-day team-building training session. There also are 20 to 25 adult advisors in the program that work with the students twice a month.

“They (the students) are not counselors, instead they connect another student to help. They connect another student to hope  through a shared story of how they relied on a strength in their life at any given time. So they really are leaders in getting somebody connected to hope, help and strength,” she said.

The high school has around 2,000 students, so when Sources of Strength was started this school year, Graham said they had to choose a given number of Peer Leaders to start out with.

“We hope to be ongoing three or four years, but the goal is longer than that. We want it to be a part of who we are, that we’ll bring in and train new Peer Leaders every year so that we can reach more of the student body,” she said.

The 70 peer leaders were nominated by teachers and administrators.

Junior Michelle Apeland is one of the Peer Leaders. She said what she liked about it after going to the first meeting about Sources of Strength was the team building and that everyone was included.

She said, “It didn’t feel like adults talking at us, it felt like they were talking with us. It was nice.”

The program is needed at the high school, she said. “I don’t think it’ll affect everyone in this school, but for the few people who are dealing with things and they need somewhere to go, it’s a very good opportunity for them to get help,” she said.

Graham said, “We really tried to reach every social group, that was also the goal, not just those specific social groups, but every social group because that’s part of Sources of Strength, too, that you tap into every peer group so that they also can help spread hope, help and strength in every area.”

Apeland said reaching out to the various peer groups was important because “you can’t just have one group and expect the entire school to know what it is. You have to have everyone from every different group.”

Another aspect of the program involved students writing a thank-you card to the person they identified as a trusted adult. Graham said that while school staff saw a lot of those cards, she was sure that many went to adults outside of the high school.

“For every student that wrote a thank-you, there were many that were outside, so we’re hoping those got delivered,” she said.

“It’s all about someone you can trust, someone who helps build you up and we want to take time to say, ‘You’ve impacted my life and I want to thank you for that.’ Just helping (students) identify who those people are in their life,” she said.

As the program moves forward, she said every month one of the eight core strengths will be focused on. Over the next month and a half, the focus will be on mental health and how good mental health in students can be built up, as well as getting students connected to mental health resources in the community.

To gauge the program’s effectiveness, she said, “We’re hoping that overall we’ll see an increase in positive climate and culture. An increase in students being more empathetic toward each other. An increase in students reaching out to their peers.”

At the start of the school year, students were given a survey, with another survey to be given out at the end of the school year. The combined surveys should provide some data on students’ outlook and how that changed over time.

Apeland said, “It’s not just some cheesy high school program, because I know a lot of people just think it is. It’s something that you can rely on to help you if you need the help. It’s very important to look at the way high school kids’ minds work, and that’s what they’re doing. And it’s not just adults telling you what to do. It’s student led, too, so it’s a good program.”