By Sydnee Conroy
As a student and a peer mentor in my school, I was extremely shocked to learn about a recent tragedy in California. Students in Palo Alto have been struggling from a cluster of teen suicides that has left their community distressed and the rest of the nation baffled. Though living in Silicon Valley is the dream of any entrepreneur wanting to make it big, the suicide rate among teenagers there is more than four times the national average.
On the surface, Palo Alto is perfect. Its high schools are ranked among the most prestigious schools in America. In fact, according to The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin, author of “The Silicon Valley Suicides,” every year about 20 Henry M. Gunn High School seniors get into Stanford. From studying for years for standardized tests to staying up all night to do homework, young people have always pushed themselves to their limits in Palo Alto schools. Yet living in such competitive communities with constant pressure from parents, teachers, classmates, and colleges can put students in a state of panic. With such high expectations, students can be extremely hard on themselves, so it’s no wonder so many young people in Palo Alto have been struggling. With a lack of sleep, a pressure to be perfect, and connections based solely upon improving their chances of success, it makes sense that anxiety, depression, and suicide have crept into the lives of many teenagers.
As unique as the situation for Palo Alto students is, their experience is not foreign to students in Rapid City. During the 2007-08 school year, three students had committed suicide at Central High School, and by September of 2011 our school community had endured 28 deaths. Although some were attributed to diseases and cancer, many were caused by suicides and risky behavior. It was an awful time for everybody, and “everyone was exhausted,” points out Tim McGowan, who was a counselor at Central High School during that time. Students had become used to attending funerals for their classmates and people they loved, which is not something your average teenager should have to deal with.
It became clear in this time that many young people lacked guidance, but students were not content to remain like that. They recognized that what our school really needed was peer mentorship. Because of their effort in the spring of 2009, we now have our program Cobbler to Cobbler (C2C). This program takes upperclassmen who are more experienced and transforms them into mentors so they can help others who may be struggling. The focus is on freshmen, who many times need a little extra help to adjust to high school, but mentors are always willing to help anyone. According to McGowan, who serves as the C2C facilitator, “over 1,000 students have been trained as peer leaders.” These leaders provide academic tutoring for students, as well as “social and emotional mentoring,” on a weekly basis.
Cobbler to Cobbler has worked wonders and has made a positive impact on the lives of many. Our community is very proud to say that we have not lost a student in Rapid City to suicide or risky behaviors since September of 2011. Not only that, but students love the program. It has helped students develop new friendships, raise their grades, and feel more confident in themselves.
Getting connected is what it’s all about. I remember an incident in which a student was trying to avoid participating in an activity and Dakota Merrival, a senior mentor, encouraged the student to join. When he finally began to participate, he had a blast and at the end of class went up to Dakota and hugged him. He said, “Thank you so much. No one has ever tried to include me like that before.” This is just a small example of the tremendous results engaging students in activities and conversations has had on our school. In fact, Tim McGowan says that getting students connected to other students and adults is “a key factor in a student’s success in school.” There is even research to prove it. According to a recent study conducted on our program by Dr. Peter Wyman, from the University of Rochester, students who were mentored were more likely to engage in school, have more trusted adults, and use positive coping strategies when struggling compared to their counterparts. This is why we have Cobbler to Cobbler.
Sounds awesome, right? Well, it is! However, it wouldn’t exist without students who were willing to help others, and it won’t excel if more young people don’t continue to come forward and give themselves to the program. Students, if you have even the slightest interest in becoming a mentor, please do.
During the process of peer leading you learn that you’re not only helping others but you’re also helping yourself. With time, many mentors develop leaderships skills and find a sense of purpose. It really only takes one student coming up to you for comfort or saying thank you for something you did for you to become addicted to making people’s lives better. Knowing that you’re making a positive impact on someone is an extremely rewarding feeling. On top of that, you also make connections by becoming a part of the program, which consequently helps your mental health.
In addition to those benefits, you also have the opportunity to participate in a lot of fun volunteer work. Students in the program are the West River Area Coordinators for the Special Olympics Bowling event. We also have a blast timing races, measuring jumps and throws, and encouraging participants at the Special Olympics track meet in the spring. The same goes for the Special Olympic basketball games in the winter where we help coach teams, ref games, run skill challenges and so much more . The mentors also plan the Safe Halloween event. And on top of it all, many students get the opportunity to travel to different schools and conferences (as far as Minneapolis and Bismarck!) to conduct leadership and prevention workshops. Cobbler to Cobbler is definitely something you’ll be proud to be a part of once you give it a chance.
With all of that being said, I believe that it’s extremely important that Central continues to implement Cobbler to Cobbler. We simply don’t want to repeat our past and experience what Palo Alto students are currently dealing with. Your peers need you. Your school needs you. Your community needs you. Pre-registration is coming up and I promise that if you sign up to help others, you will be helped in return.
And finally, our prayers go out to the Palo Alto community. Hopefully they can find a solution like we did . . . maybe even the same one.