West Middle School Finds New "Sources of Strength"

Posted by Adapted from a story by Gazette freelance writer, Patty Tomsky on 11/15/2019 10:30:00 AM

People across the country have been deeply impacted by the fact that youth suicide rates have been on the rise. At West Middle School, the students and counselors are working together to address this issue. 

Sources of Strength (SoS) is a nationwide suicide awareness program. D11 uses this program as we recognize the need to address mental health due to the increase in suicide rates. West Middle School is one of many D11 schools to integrate this program. West Middle School students are clamoring to get involved with this program. Why?

Eighth grader Cambria Zelonis-Stewart thinks that it’s because it makes students feel more connected to their community. “I’m in my third year working on Sources of Strength. It helps you realize that even though we all have our own friend groups, we’re all the same—wanting to feel a part of something.” Second-year Sources of Strength volunteer Erik Harris concurs: “My favorite thing about the Sources of Strength experience is that it lets me interact with people I might not automatically have a reason to talk to—it also makes it okay to ask for help,” Harris said.  

The building blocks of belonging

The program also works with kids on issues such as substance abuse and violence. The middle school students who have volunteered to work as peer leaders run the program for their classmates and the entire school. This model is called, “relational connectedness” and builds bonds among students to enhance their knowledge of these issues as a group, as well as encourage students to seek help if needed and/or identify ways to develop inner resilience and strength to avoid being caught up in negative situations and mind-states.

“It’s all about positivity,” said Levi Rago. “We can be the people that kids can go to if they’re feeling bad when it’s harder to go to an adult.”

 SoS Adult Advisor and West Middle School Counseling Secretary & Registrar Kelly Brakefield, said, “In a peer-adult connected community, kids will be able to have the tough conversations they need to have. Whether it’s through reaching out with messages, video, texts or in one-on-one conversations, Sources of Strength builds skills among the kids to ensure they know what to do if confronted with these tough issues.”

Such programs have been shown to improve coping behaviors and problems such as “self-harm, drug use, or unhealthy sexual practices.” According to the website, after being exposed to Sources of Strength, students can be said to possess: “eight critical protective factors that are linked to overall psychological wellness and reduced suicide risk." 

“The conversations around these issues are so crucial: we work to help our students gain the knowledge and skills they need to reach out to others and form a sense of belonging that becomes a ripple effect of positive change and improved coping behaviors,” said Counselor and SoS Advisor Sarah Clapham.

At West Middle School, students are sharing what makes them special and displaying each of these contributions as a “vital part of the larger whole.” By writing or stating how “I Belong,” on a puzzle piece and then fitting that paper into a large poster in the hallway outside the counseling center for everyone to see. Students can cultivate a sense that “We Belong” by reading, “I play soccer and I belong” or “I am Latino and I belong,” or “I am an extrovert and I belong.” 

SoS student member Annie Wruble said, “It was so cool for me to read other soccer players up there on the wall and make new connections with people I didn’t even know played soccer.”

Important Pieces of the Puzzle

“This campaign is visually represented by a puzzle with no end pieces, with the goal of filling up the entire wall, extending far past the bulletin board, to highlight our individuality while demonstrating we are all part of the bigger picture,” Brakefield said. The wider community will be involved as Sources of Strength students are extending the puzzle piece project to include district administrators and others in the community.

On November 11, SoS students presented to other classes why the program was happening. They enthusiastically visited classrooms, carrying puzzle pieces they had made for their classmates in 7th grade Math and Science teacher Tena Logan’s class. The students were articulate as they explained to a classroom of their peers why the campaign was so important to them and to the school community at large.

“We want everyone to know they are a part of our family,” Zelonis-Stewart said. “You have someone to talk to if you ever need help.”

See the video excerpts here.