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Sources of Strength program extends hand to students facing depression, isolation

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Grand Forks Red River students (from left) Sarah Kay, Joanna Moss and Myra Henderson greet fellow students as they arrive for school Wednesday morning, Oct. 11, as part of the "Welcome Warrior Project," by the student organization Sources of Strength. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service2 / 3
Grand Forks Red River students (from left) Katelyn Johnson, Rita Sevigny and Olivia Benson greet fellow students as they arrive for school Wednesday morning, Oct. 11, as part of the "Welcome Warrior Project," by the student organization, Sources of Strength. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service3 / 3

GRAND FORKS — As they strode up to an entrance of Red River High School on Wednesday morning, Oct. 11, students were greeted by a half-dozen classmates who offered fist bumps, high-fives and cheery greetings.

"Good morning, guys." "Have a great day." "How are you doing?"

The greeters are "peer leaders" in the Sources of Strength program—now in its second year at Red River—which is aimed at infusing a positive culture in their school.

They are among 75 Red River students, representing all grades, who, along with adult advisers, have received training in the program that advocates spreading messages of hope, help and strength.

Their goal is to create a school culture in which students who are going through difficult times will be noticed and, it is hoped, receive the help they need.

"These are kids with a hopeful spirit," said Geoff Gaukler, school counselor and adult adviser, as he watched the steady stream of students enter the school.

Gaukler would like to see the "welcome warriors" at entrances each Wednesday "to create a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere where everybody feels valued and everybody feels welcome," he said.

It's an example of the activities the Sources of Strength team is using to reach students at every grade level and every social network "or every walk of life," Gaukler said.

By recruiting students across various social networks to become part of Sources of Strength, "there's a better chance you'll be close to" and, therefore, be able to help students who feel socially isolated or invisible.

The team meets regularly to develop campaigns to reach their goals for the program, which "is slowly getting off the ground" at Red River, Gaukler said.

The purpose is not only to work on suicide prevention, but also "how to continuously work on school culture and climate, and help teens see that there are trusted adults they can turn to."

And it seems to be working.

"I see it connecting kids to a lot of different resources they didn't even know were available in our school," said Myra Henderson, junior.

Since the program launched last year, she's seen more interest among students, she said. "If their friends are showing symptoms of depression or anxiety, they want (them) to get help. ... They're spreading the word and they're getting out there."

Dealing with challenges

The Sources of Strength approach "is not a one-size-fits all," Gaukler said.

"For one group of students, (the challenge) might be concerns in the home and conflict. For another group, it might be loss, like divorce or a death in family, or a big change, like a move. Other students don't feel socially connected."

"You have to meet them where they're at," Gaukler said. "Everybody's life experiences are different."

The program is built on a "wheel of strength" consisting of things which, based on extensive research, are proven to help people through life's rocky patches—mentors, positive friends, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality, medical access, mental health and family support.

The biggest benefit of the program "is that it's easy to understand and it's rooted in common sense," Gaukler said.

In training the program's peer leaders, the intent, however, is not to train "junior psychologists," said Mark LoMurray, of Bismarck, who developed the program and has conducted training in Grand Forks.

He encourages peer leaders to spread messages of "hope, help and strength, and have them stay away from 'sad, shock and trauma' which have the unintentional consequence of making those who are vulnerable feel more helpless," he said.

Last year, students at Red River High and South Middle schools became the first to participate in what Gaukler called "a pilot program with purpose."

About 30 North Dakota schools have participated in the Sources of Strength program. He's hoping that 30 more will get involved this year, he said.