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BEA students leading peers by example for over 30 years
November 4, 2018

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Back in 1981, two staff members at Blue Earth Area High School brought an idea to the table: youth development and peers leading peers.

Those two staff members were Craig Van Kley and Gary Armon. A few years later, after Van Kley and Armon developed their idea, the superintendent, Don Helmstetter, supported this well-developed idea, and began the process of making this idea a reality.

In 1990, a youth development coordinator, Sharon Van Kley, was hired by the school district to begin this youth development and peer to peer leadership program.

Almost 40 years later, that program has not only stayed in-tact, but it has become a staple at Blue Earth Area Schools.

The Peer Leading program at Blue Earth Area is an umbrella title for a number of youth-lead activities including peer tutoring and mentoring, SEEDS (a program geared towards high school students teaching lessons to pre-schoolers), Peer Leading retreats, such as the one students engaged in on Oct. 25, the DARE drug program, student orientation guides, Rhymes of the Times, Project Trust, Buc Bags, and a multitude of other projects that promote unique leadership opportunities for students to get involved at their school and in their community.

BEA's current youth development coordinator, Shannon Swanson, recalls being a peer leader when she was a student at BEA, and hopes to continue to teach students how to lead with intention, serve others with a kind heart, and grow as leaders, all while making a positive difference.

"The students involved in peer leading find huge gratification from these programs," says Swanson. "In my opinion, Craig Van Kley is like the Godfather of Peer Helping. Through his and Sharon's guidance and leadership, we have generations of students who have learned how to make a difference and how small acts of kindness impact everyone. We all gain something from peer leading."

Swanson says she has had close to 100 students come to the Peer Leading workshop which was held in early October. Students are given time to figure out what interests they have, and what peer leading activities they would enjoy.

"We also make sure these activities work into their schedule, and make sure the students are doing well enough to take on these types of roles," says Swanson. "There are such a variety of opportunities with peer leading that one student could be involved in a number of peer leading programs. And, once involved, those students are always willing to help more."

Jack Frundt, a junior, who has been a Peer Leader for two years, and Tate Thielfoldt, a senior who has three years of peer leading under his belt, both recall their experience as younger students watching peer leaders.

Now, as high schoolers and peer leaders themselves, they have both decided to create the same impact on current students their peer leaders made on them when they were younger students.

"As a peer leader now, I appreciate the work my peer leaders put in for me, and I want to pay it forward to the next group of kids," says Frundt. "We hope the community of positivity continues after we graduate and then some."

"Being a peer leader gives me an opportunity to connect with the younger crowd and a whole different group of people," says Thielfoldt. "You get to connect with students you may not ordinarily hang out with. As a peer tutor, I like being able to say 'hey' to the students I work with in the halls and even outside the school."

"This program has been here for so long, and?I hope it will be here when my own kids are in high school," says Swanson. "These students are making such great differences in our schools and we hope they take what they learn as a peer leader in school and take it home and to their communities."

Swanson says that students do not necessarily need to be involved in other BEA?activities like sports or music to be a peer leader, but are more than welcome to be.

"Students who may be successful at a sport, or have a 4.0 in school may feel like there's something missing perhaps its serving others," says Swanson. "As a peer leader, you are not only serving others, but fulfilling something inside yourself as well. Those small acts of kindness and companionship makes our school environment better for everyone."

She goes on to say that peers are highly influenced by other peers, whether they're older, younger, or the same age as one another. Peer leading seeks to promote positive impacts between peers.

"We are so focused on what others think of us, and if we focus on being a good person, making good and kind decisions, that behavior makes the biggest impression on others," says Swanson. "Positivity comes back to you. Kindness is contagious. You don't need anything in return for being kind. We hope these are habits that students learn to use outside of these four walls of our school and bring it to their homes, their churches, and their communities."

As Swanson reflects on her time as a student, she has brought forth what she has learned as a peer leader and is focusing her attention on the next generation of peer leaders who she hopes, in turn, will be able to give back to their communities; just like Swanson, herself, and her mentors like the Van Kleys before her.

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