Meade's Natural Helpers are there for students with problems to lean on ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY EDUCATION

October 12, 1992|By Monica Norton | Monica Norton,Staff Writer

When students at Meade High School were asked to write down the student they would mostly likely turn to if they had a problem, Carlton Matthew, 15, wrote down his own name.

Perhaps that sort of self-confidence will come in handy, now that Carlton has become one of 20 students chosen for a new peer-support group being started at the school.

"I was surprised when I heard I was picked," Carlton said. "I knew I wrote down my own name. I figured you must have needed only one vote."

Actually, it took a minimum of five nominations for students to be named to the Natural Helpers, a program that seeks to make the informal network students have for getting help from their peers more effective.

The program began in Seattle, Wash., said Counselor Diane Pelesh. "Counselors there realized that often students will go to their peers with a problem before they will come to a counselor or a teacher."

Mrs. Pelesh said all students who received five or more nominations were invited to an orientation to learn more about the program.

The 20 students who decided they wanted to be helpers were asked to participate in an orientation retreat over the summer.

For three days in August, the students, along with eight adults, received 30 hours of training at a site along the West River.

"We focused in on bonding during the retreat," said Counselor Burma Hill.

"We did trust exercises. We learned to pick up on non-verbal communications. We learned to know the limits of helping and when it's time to refer a person to a professional."

During one of the training exercises, students are asked to wear signs on their forehead such as jock, nerd, or druggie. The students do not know which label they are wearing, but from the reaction of their peers, they can usually figure out their label.

"We all have a tendency to label people, whether they deserve the label or not," Mrs. Pelesh said.

"We want the students to be able to look beyond the labels. Labeling can be very harmful. If you label someone in a negative way, you tend to be less open to really opening up to [that] person."

Students selected as helpers fit several categories. They are male and female, black, white and Asian. Many did not know each other when they joined Natural Helpers.

"I didn't know what to expect," said Alethea MacBorough, 15.

"I was just interested in going on the retreat. But it was really interesting, and we learned a lot. We learned the helping skills we need to help others."

Carlton said adhering to the rule against giving advice has proven difficult.

"Sometimes it's kind of hard remembering to use the helping skills," he said.

"My friends and I are used to just throwing ideas at each other. Now, I've got to remember to give them the full responsibility, let them make up their own mind."

Meade's Natural Helpers are not nervous about their newfound titles. They said the need for help is greater now than ever.

"I've dealt with everything from pregnancy to suicide with my friends," said Mike Gomez, 17.

Alethea added, "The problems are just getting worse for teen-agers. Sometimes it's just hard for us to cope with all the problems.

"That's why it's good [that] kids can come to us."

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