A peer counseling program has returned to Ashland High School after a year-and-a-half hiatus. This time around, the program's leader hopes to make it more visible than ever.




Natural Helpers, a national counseling program, began at AHS in 1988 and was run by counselor Kathy Vann until her retirement two years ago. To participate, students are selected by their peers as a person who is naturally helpful or with whom they would feel comfortable sharing their problems or seeking advice.




"When kids have issues or problems, rather than going to a trusted adult, they go to their peers," said teacher Mark Schoenleber, who helps lead the program.




Twenty-one students from all grade levels and the alternative education programs went on a retreat last weekend to start the program. They learned problem-solving skills and how to identify the red flags of serious problems such as suicide and abuse. Students were also taught to recognize problems that are too large for them to handle and where to refer their friends for help.




The program is a necessary piece of students' health and development, said Cassie Richards, who coordinates the program and was a Natural Helper herself at the high school 10 years ago. When she returned to the school and the program was gone, she felt she had to bring it back.




"It's great to get our kids academically up to speed, but we were missing this key piece, and that's their emotional development and what kind of friend they are," she said.




Schoenleber and Richards hope to run several more retreats this year and train up to 100 students to be helpers. It is funded partially through the Youth Activities Levy, and they will seek additional grants to expand the program. Unlike in years past, Natural Helpers will hold workshops and participate in community service, as well as posting lists of all the group's helpers so they are readily identifiable around school.




The training program is as much about students being able to help themselves as helping others, Richards said. Healthier kids will be more successful helping others, she said. Students spent much of the retreat developing trust and gaining confidence that they can help their peers.




"A lot of us naturally helpful people forget to help ourselves sometimes because we're too busy helping others," said Cheyenne Peters, a senior who also participated in the program as a freshman. "I have changed so much the more I have done these types of retreats."




Members of Natural Helpers are encouraged to show new students around the school or eat lunch with those who routinely eat alone. The program also helps break down barriers among different groups of students.




"There are so many people from so many areas of the school," said Erika Hultz, also a senior. "You get to know people and see who they are instead of who you thought they were."




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