Through a New Peer Counseling Program, Students Help One Another Succeed

posted March 9, 2016 

When Red Cloud counselor Alicia Adams arrived on campus over three years ago, she immediately fell in love with the talent, joy, and promise she saw in her students. At the same time, she quickly recognized the extraordinary challenges that many Red Cloud students face, both at school and in their lives outside the classroom. And she started wondering what more she could do to help.

“The realities of the reservation mean that many of our students deal with depression—either their own depression or a family member’s. Some don’t have access to enough food or to stable housing, and others don’t have enough family support at home to succeed in school. Suicide among young people has become so common that students are nearly immune. It’s a powerful reminder of the struggles that exist here,” said Alicia.

“Red Cloud’s counseling program already does an amazing job at helping our kids address so many complex challenges in their lives. But I always wanted to do more—to come up with new ways to help kids at risk of falling through the cracks.”

When a number of high school students began asking if they would ever have the chance to tutor their classmates, it sparked an idea for Alicia, and she quickly knew she was on to something. This year she is helping to launch a new peer counseling program called “Sader to Sader”, which brings students together after school to share both academic and social support. Students who have volunteered to serve as tutors and mentors can help their peer partners with challenging schoolwork. But Alicia says they often become a source of supportive friendship for students who are struggling with deeper personal challenges.

“Being able to open up to another student, to vent or simply be heard, is so valuable. Peer tutors are able to share that it’s okay to make mistakes, or to express yourself, and especially to grieve. Even though we’re just getting this program established, we know it’s already making a real difference.”

To create Sader to Sader, Alicia connected with a highly successful peer counseling program in Rapid City schools called Cobbler 2 Cobbler. Developed by Central High School guidance counselor Tim McGowan, Cobbler 2 Cobbler trains student mentors to support peers who may be struggling at school or at home. The program has received national attention for helping to reduce dropout rates, improve academic outcomes, and address suicide prevention. Alicia and Clare Huerter, Red Cloud’s Dean of Students, traveled to Rapid City to meet with McGowan and to draw lessons from Cobbler 2 Cobbler’s powerful impact. Today they are implementing a similar model at Red Cloud; they organize group activities to deepen trust between student mentors and mentees, and they train student mentors to recognize when their peers are at risk and need intervention from adult counselors.  

From the very beginning, Red Cloud’s student tutors and mentors have played a leading role in Sader to Sader’s development. Recently, Alicia took five Red Cloud students to Rapid City to learn more about Cobbler 2 Cobbler programming. They spent time with student mentors from 10 other schools, and left inspired with new ideas and an even deeper commitment to supporting their peers.

“This idea for peer mentoring really came to us through the kids themselves,” said Alicia. “We haven’t recruited any tutors—they’ve all come forward because they truly want to share their resources and help support their classmates. Their dedication has been so inspiring.”

That inspiration is helping Alicia and the counseling team to plan for the future. Alicia is hoping to expand Sader to Sader to other schools across the reservation. She know there will be challenges to overcome—resources are limited and counselors and faculty would need time to devote to the program. But given how deeply students need additional support, she knows what an extraordinary difference it could make.

“I really see the potential for this program to explode and take off across the reservation. Many other schools have already expressed interest, and our kids are taking the idea of peer mentoring and just running with it,” she said. “We’re already seeing an amazing impact—grades are improving, and students who are struggling know that someone cares and is there to support them. The ultimate goal is to make every kid feel like they matter—and we’ll keep building on this until we make that goal a reality.”


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Photos © 2016 Red Cloud Indian School, Inc.