Sources of Strength reaches out to students in need

A new group has emerged with proactive plans to transform West into a more safe, comfortable and positive place. Run by students, Sources of Strength draws upon the eight core values nationally found to reach out to peers: family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality, medical access, and mental health. Their mission is to spread hope, help and strength to every corner of the community. Students serving as leaders and mentors were chosen for showing strong leadership qualities. Through the implementation of the eight Sources of Strength through these mentors, support is provided to students in need as they are made aware  that there are people out there who care about them and what they are going through. A new endeavor for West, there are many people striving for the group’s success.

“Sources of Strength is a program that empowers student leaders and mentors in the building to educate the student body about different strengths that they have, that they can pull from, to help them get through difficult times,” Principal Erin Kohl said.  “It is designed as a suicide prevention program but there is so much more to it than that.”

Kohl is confident in the group’s ability to make a difference. The program has been rapidly spreading throughout all of Wisconsin, and West now has an opportunity to change the whole community and make an impact. Although the idea to start Sources of Strength in Oshkosh was not personally Kohl’s, she excitedly agreed to the addition with the betterment of students in mind.

“Matthew Kaemmerer is the director of Pupil Services in the school district and he had heard about the program through other school districts in the area that are doing this, Hortonville being the primary one,” she said. “He went to a meeting to learn a little bit more about it.”

After attending the meeting, students, staff and community members came together to help with the implementation of Sources of Strength, with hopes that the group could have a positive impact on everyone involved.

“He [Kaemmerer] met with me and with [Jackie] Schleicher, the principal at Oshkosh North High School, and shared a little bit about the program with us, and once we heard more about it we were both absolutely on board with it,” Kohl said. “It sounded like something that would be a really powerful thing and a good thing for our school and students.”

The ultimate goal for starting Sources of Strength at West was to be able to evolve the school atmosphere into a safer, more positive place for students and staff. Kohl has full faith that this program will make a difference as the message is coming from the students to the students.

“My main goal for advising Sources of Strength at West is to create a more positive culture and climate here,” she said. “I want all students who are at West to feel like they’re supported when they need help and all students at West to feel like they have somebody they can trust and who they can go to.”

With almost 1,700 students at West, Kohl knows it is not possible for the staff to properly handle all of the needs alone.

“I believe that students are going to respond better to other students, so I think empowering our students to take the lead on this is going to ensure that the program is going to be successful,” she said. “Really, my goal is we want our kids to know that there is help out there, and that they are not alone when they are struggling and we want them to get that help.”

Sources of Strength hopes first to reach out to everyone at the school and teach them about these valuable skills. Kohl is convinced that by educating the students at West about the strengths they can pull from, it will positively affect their current lives and their futures as they go out into the world after high school.

“Kids that are comfortable with asking for help and know that they do have strengths and positive things should know that these skills carry into adult life,” she said. “As kids graduate from high school and live and work in our community, we hope that they will become Sources of Strength for others, but that they also tap into Sources of Strength when they need help.”

To get the students started on integrating Sources of Strength into Wildcat life, teachers volunteered to be advisors and mentors for the group. Leadership teacher and assistant advisor of Sources of Strength Elizabeth Podvin had another reason that led her to take on her position.

“Kohl talked very briefly about the program and asked if anyone was interested in learning more or participating. Sources of Strength reminded me a lot of leadership, and that’s why I was drawn to it, because I enjoy the leadership classes so much.”

Initially the teachers’ main role was to educate the peer leaders on what the main idea of the program was and why exactly they were asked to be part of the group. Now that the main goal is set in clear view, the students can take more control, and the teachers are able to be there as guides.

“Their role really is an advisor, Sources of Strength is a student-led program in which peers come up with ideas to implement and lead the whole student body and hopefully encourage other students to get involved,” Podvin said. “They reach out to kids who may be struggling and teach them the different coping skills.”

Teachers and students see many benefits to initiating this program at West. Teachers love it because it has more input from the students than from the teachers, and they see that as a fresh new start to making West a positive and safe place to be.

“I think it is a wonderful program for two reasons. First, it’s student led and from my experience in leadership, when it comes from the kids, which always rocks,” Podvin said. “Instead of having an administrator coming up with an idea of what to do, it’s coming from you guys. And I know that’s why it’s going to be a huge success.”

Sources of Strength strives to prevent an inability to cope from ever occurring in the first place, according to Podvin.

“I think the concept is something that we need in this school,” she said. “It is really an upriver approach. Helping students learn coping skills before situations become so big, so overwhelming, that these Sources of Strength will help kids cope today, tomorrow and when they graduate and go into adulthood, or in college they are able to cope. Stresses and problems don’t stop just because your are out of high school; they continue into adulthood as well, that’s why I think it’s such a great program.”

Many are excited for the potential of Sources of Strength and where it could eventually lead. Podvin hopes to see it grow into the community and make a lasting significance on the outside world.

“If I could predict, it will grow here in the school and it will grow in the community. We will start forming partnerships like I have in leadership with kids volunteering in the public,” she said. “We’ll form partnerships with other business, with other community members who also will be supportive and they’ll be talking about the wheel and all the different Sources of Strength that are for coping.”

Bringing this into the community with open arms is what has helped this club grow, and it seems as though everyone involved is excited to see the positive results that have the potential to spread throughout the city.

“Hopefully we can help other people outside of West High School: elementary, middle school, district wide, is where I can see it going,” Podvin said.

With Sources of Strength being a peer leadership group, the process is left up to the students to create campaigns to spread the message to their fellow peers. Junior Austin Ziemer and freshman Grace Weber are among those who accepted the challenge to put the needs of others on their priority list, contributing the skills they have to help spread the mental stability and other help given by Sources of Strength.

“I’m in activities and events, but I added this one because I felt that in this group I could make more of an impact because putting together plans is one of my strengths,” Ziemer said.

Each student contributes by joining a small group presentation, social media, posters, graphic design, activities and events. No matter the platform, volunteers are encouraged to make a personal connection.

“I think it is a really interesting opportunity for people to use what they’re good at to help people in our school,” Weber said. “I am part of the art and design group of Sources of Strength. We discuss our ideas and figure out how to use them to help spread our message and put them into action.”

Teachers, English teacher Alexandra Griffith included, agree that this student-led program will help students feel more empowered in making a difference.

“What’s cool about Sources of Strength is that it is peer-led program so the teachers’ role at first has been to get the kids to understand the goal of sources and how you prevent a problem before it becomes a problem,” she said. “That is how it started and now it is up to the students to start campaigns and start to direct ways to teach kids and teach their peers about how to pull from a strength and friends or find a trusted adult.”

Griffith has noticed the peer interaction is what is really pushing this club to make an impact on the community with everything that it has to offer.

“It is up to peers to design the campaigns and put them into action, and I think that is really cool because it’s a lot more meaningful when the advice comes from somebody that is in the students’ age group,” she said. “I mean I can give the advice that you want but I am not in your position right now and it is very powerful to see your peers being understanding and positive.”  

Being involved in a student led organization, a member is encouraged to express their leadership qualities in order to spark change. Through the trainings and meetings, the students have experienced firsthand the impact a leader can have.

Austin Ziemer knows how important it is for people within a community to come together for a cause and help those who are in dire need of a positive influence and a positive role model.

“A peer leader is someone who does not boss people around but someone who backs up what they say and is a constant positive influence and importantly someone people trust to go to whatever the situation,” he said of the need for tolerance. “Anyone can be peer leader though, all you have to do is influence your group positively by your actions and words.”

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