IMBLER – Students have control over their school’s environment as much as teachers, staff and parents do. In theory, by acknowledging and encouraging strong or positive character traits within parts of a student body, kids can help foster a more supportive atmosphere for everyone involved. The Imbler School District is giving this concept a renewed try with their own take on the Natural Helpers Program.
For those unfamiliar, the Natural Helpers Program is, in a basic sense, a national initiative in schools to identify and encourage students of strong character and morals and provide them with the guidance and direction needed to act as student leaders. These student leaders can in turn work to improve the atmosphere of the school, and hopefully, the mental health of their peers, through a variety of ways. Natural Helpers was originally founded during the 1940s, with Imbler previously hosting a version of the program from 1998 to 2001.
In practice, new natural helpers aren’t just cut loose after being given a basic course in kindness and how to identify a fellow student in need. Rather, students and staff involved meet monthly during Imbler’s Enrichment Fridays to train, pitch ideas, and decide on areas of focus that can best benefit students and the school. According to Imbler’s school counselor Rheadean Hays, who founded the current Imbler Natural Helpers Program:
“It’s really including all school organizations by bumping up school spirit and encouraging each other with community commitment or involvement, usually by having some kind of kindness challenges for the month. That is an area that our 16 natural helper leaders have decided to focus on, school spirit, kindness, activities, challenges, and then positive imagery for the school campus. That could look like posters, positive and empowering thoughts, working on more counseling, bulletin boards, that kind of thing.”
As mentioned, the program is starting out with 16 natural helper students: four 7th graders, 3 8th graders, 2 freshman, 2 sophomores, 3 juniors and 2 seniors. Leadership wise, Natural Helpers consists of three volunteer staff members: Rheadean Hays herself, Jen Goodman (Imbler’s Librarian), and Lori Walker (a paraprofessional for the high school). In addition, Imbler’s ag/shop teacher JD Cant and high school English teacher Kathy Christensen act as faculty advisors, providing “invaluable insight to what’s going on at Imbler,” as stated by Hays.
When it comes to actual activities, Natural Helpers plan to make Imbler’s campus a more visually welcoming place in addition to a socially inviting one. Part of this effort is the creation of “soft spaces,” as Hays described them. This involves beautifying the school through flowers, bench and table decorations, and positive messages placed around to create more welcoming spaces for students to congregate. Another activity is to make decorative snowflakes out of paper sacks and hang them throughout the buildings. The hope is for smaller actions such as these to help improve the mood on campus overall.
On a more serious note, another goal of Natural Helpers is to assist with student mental health and even the topic of suicide. As explained by Hays:
“The Natural Helpers, besides giving recognition for good kids, is also meant to help me out a little bit with bringing skills into the student body to help prevent suicide. So, this group is something that is coming out of Senate Bill 52 to help support our suicide prevention and intervention. The last couple of years we spent really bringing in skills for teachers, offering the Question, Persuade, Refer, QPR training to really help prevent and talk about suicide.”
Another facet of this mental health push is to encourage students, including the Natural Helpers themselves, to have people they can confide in along with lessons in how to manage stress. As Hays described it:
“The other goal of mine through this group is to make sure each kiddo has their go-to people, like friends and or teachers that they really feel supported by and identifying that for each kiddo in the school.”
Other activities and points of focus will be decided as the program further evolves, which it is likely to do significantly. While Natural Helpers is an old program and has been tried at Imbler before, the current effort is more grass roots and limited in scope compared to the national program. The Imbler initiative is also the only Natural Helpers program in Union County as of the time of writing. This isn’t to say Natural Helpers lacks support but, as Hays put it, “we’re building the bicycle as we ride it.” It’s a program for students, being built by students.
While there are some talks of fundraisers and private donations, the program is still working on a long-term source of funding. The focus over the coming months is to figure out the basic activities, a finalized training routine, and decide on the best topics to focus on, both for the helpers and the students they hope to help. Whether or not this help comes from an inspirational poster or a heart-to-heart talk between peers, the Natural Helpers and the school staff supporting them are already hard at work. As best described by Hays:
“What I saw at our retreat is kids really turning those masks around, you know, being authentic to themselves. I saw a lot of confidence just kind of blossom and a lot of connections made. They realize they’re not alone; they do have each other.”