Peer-Helper Program Bringing Polson Community Closer
The Town’s Youth and Family Services Department (MYFS) has a decades-long commitment to Madison’s students, ensuring tolerance and inclusion long before those were catchwords. The Peer Helper program, initiated back in the 1980s, is still a major component of the department’s outreach, and a newly developed project, Speak Up, continues that tradition of compassion and student involvement.
MYFS Assistant Director Melissa Balletto and Youth Development Coordinator Peggy Butler currently heads the Peer Helper program and said this year’s project has brought the tight-knit Polson community even closer.
“This is a group of 7th- and 8th-graders, and we train these kids every day after school for two weeks and teach them how to support other students. We also help them recognize some of the signs that another student is struggling so that they can help lead that student to the resources they need to get help,” said Balletto. “The Speak Up program is a program that helps students stand up and speak up for students who are being bullied, who are by themselves, or who are struggling.”
According to Balletto, the student response has been very positive for both those in need and for those who are reaching out.
“They really like the challenge. In the training, they are taught how to handle the challenges and then how to find an adult when they need more help, although not every situation necessarily needs the intervention of an adult,” Balletto said. “If one of the kids sees another child sitting alone at lunch, they have the training to be able to approach that student and offer some friendship. The kids are definitely enthusiastic about the program.”
This is the second year for the Speak Up campaign, according to Balletto, and this year’s effort is already providing vital connections and feedback.
“The students really guide this program. Everybody in the school knows about the program and that is due to the effort by the kids,” Balletto said.
Students in 7th and 8th grade at Polson who are part of the campaign are excited about the opportunity that the Speak Up project is nurturing. At a recent afterschool meeting, students expressed how important the program is for them and for the larger school community.
Natalie Greenup, a Peer Helper, said she got involved because middle school is a critical time for students, and there is often an urgent need for students to make connections and feel involved.
“We did this project because we know how important it is for others to speak up to each other, mostly in middle school. Things happen, and it’s important for everyone to help each other,” Greenup said. “As a Peer Helper, we’ve learned how to speak up for others who do need help and to pass that on to others. We want to show them that they can do it.”
Student Clara Tardie said that as a victim of bullying, she knows how crushing being the focus of that disrespect can feel.
“I have been bullied and left out. When I was in 3rd grade all the girls in my class made a club, but wouldn’t let me in. Looking back, it really wasn’t that big, but it felt really big and bad at the time,” said Tardie. “I think the program shows how important it is for kids to speak up. If people speak up, hopefully, there will be a little less bullying.”
According to student Maewyn Griswold, it was the connections made via the Peer Helper Speak Up project that allowed her to overcome feelings of isolation and make new friends.
“I just wanted to join...because I thought it could help me make a difference the way that other people made a difference for me,” said Griswold.
Polson Principal Katherine Hart said the program is a crucial aspect of achieving the school’s social and educational goals.
“The Peer Helper program is one of the most powerful programs we have at Polson. Not only do the helpers themselves receive leadership training on critical skills like empathy, listening, and conflict resolution, but they are using those skills to reach an important group: their peers,” said Hart. “The Speak Up campaign, which was completely student-directed, is just one of the many programs that the Peer Helpers do to make a positive contribution to the Polson community. Our partnership with MYFS makes it happen, and we are grateful for it.”
Matheus Ferreira Franca said he was also once bullied, and that experience led him to understand what students endure when picked on by their peers.
“I know what it feels like being bullied, being called dumb, or being left out of a group,” he said. “Knowing this, I feel like I can help prevent other people from feeling the same way.”