The grounds of Newfield High School were ablaze in festive shades of pink, blue, and orange on Saturday as some 250 students, parents, and community members took part in the school’s annual spring Color Run.
Under a brilliant sun and cloudless sky, everyone from senior citizens to toddlers in strollers to families with pets in tow trekked along their choice of routes—the standard five-kilometer course, one-mile course, or the “family” half-mile track. At five stations along the way the joggers and walkers were doused with colored powder, sometimes to shrieks of delight. With dozens of volunteer organizers on hand to help, music, lawn games, and hot dogs rounded out the day’s fun.
The Color Run is sponsored by—and raises money for—a great student club at Newfield High School, Sources of Strength (SOS). This is part of a national peer-led suicide prevention program, originally developed in North Dakota in 1998, that promotes hope, help, strength, and connections, and provides support to struggling students.
Newfield High School heard about Sources of Strength six years ago, and affiliated researchers and trainers at the University of Rochester offered two years of support and a bit of funding to help pilot the program in some Tompkins County schools.
What made this program so appealing to us at Newfield was the unique focus of having peer leaders deliver powerfully positive, strength-driven messages. The University of Rochester researchers had already collected solid data from several schools in North America proving the effectiveness of Sources of Strength.
As Sources of Strength explains it:
“A best practice youth suicide prevention project designed to harness the power of peer social networks to change unhealthy norms and culture, ultimately preventing suicide, bullying, and substance abuse. The mission of Sources of Strength is to prevent suicide by increasing help seeking behaviors and promoting connections between peers and caring adults. Sources of Strength moves beyond a singular focus on risk factors by utilizing an upstream approach for youth suicide prevention. This upstream model strengthens multiple sources of support (protective factors) around young individuals so that when times get hard they have strengths to rely on.”
Each fall, the club’s co-advisors—myself and high school counselor Rick Pawlewicz—take our group of diverse peer leaders through a half-day training to learn about the mission and key messages of Sources Of Strength.
In becoming key “connectors” in their school, the peer leaders focus on identifying and utilizing eight different strengths in our lives: positive friends, healthy activities, family support, mentors, spirituality, generosity, medical access, and mental health. They share stories at weekly SOS meetings about struggles, stressors, and how they use personal sources of strength to get through tough times. Helping to break the silence around mental health, peer leaders actively seek out others to connect them with resources and to their own sources of strength. They continually send the message that it’s okay to talk about tough times, and that it’s essential to tap into our personal strengths and reach out for help.
SOS peer leaders at Newfield High have created, facilitated, and engaged in countless messaging activities inside our school and in the wider community. The activities include simple, visual messages like posters, cards, videos, and social media posts; trivia games during all lunch periods; Sources of Strength Weeks; pep rallies; and the annual Extravaganzas—nights of fun on campus with games, music, art, and food. The peer leaders give community presentations on their activities, to the Newfield Central School District Board of Education and the Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). And, of course, hundreds of community members come out for the annual Color Run.
We are proud of Newfield High School’s peer leaders and the mentors (teachers, staff, administrators, coaches, etc.) who support their efforts to promote hope, help, strength, and connections throughout every corner of our community. Our goal is that every student knows that they are not alone, and there is always help and support available.
—By Jamie McCaffrey
Jamie McCaffrey, LCSW is a social worker in the Newfield Central School District
Photos courtesy Jamie McCaffrey