Life As A Teenager Can Be Tough, So These Students Offer To Help

Posted: November 19, 1989

"I'm one of those people who enjoys talking to other people and finding out what they want," said Mike Goodman.

"I'm just a person who wants to be there for someone else. It's a harsh world. Someone has to be there."

Goodman's somber-looking dark-rimmed glasses and stylish black sports jacket contrasted sharply with the obligatory T-shirt and sneakers. He was sitting in the center of the circle at a recent South Jersey Youth Commission monthly training session in the SODAT (Services to Overcome Drug Abuse Among Teenagers) office in Woodbury.

Commission members are students who volunteer to help solve social problems in their schools. "Being there" means that during school and often late into the night, Mike and other commission members counsel friends in crisis and often refer them to professionals in their communities. They deal with problems of substance abuse, depression, family conflicts, suicidal feelings, delinquency, AIDS and teen pregnancy.

Meeting regularly after school with an adult adviser on the faculty, they create their own programs to raise awareness about substance abuse and interrelated problems.

Two hundred of the commission members counsel and refer fellow students. The others publicize helpful advice and information and organize new groups such as high school SADD chapters.

Unlike young people of the late '60s who said they wanted to change the world, these students say they simply want to help one another.

Goodman explained why.

"People are really just going out for themselves, but they don't know who they are," he said. "Students are leaving schools unprepared. They aren't ready to grow, so as soon as they step out, they get shot down. That's why so few succeed."

Knowing when to listen, what to do and when to act - these skills take hours of training. Students attend training sessions dealing with different subjects - suicide, Satanism, drugs - once a month in the SODAT office. Students learn to communicate effectively, to cultivate helping relationships, to look for specific crises and, most important, to know their limits.

Jennifer Emery, president of the South Jersey Youth Commission and senior at Clearview Regional High in Mullica Hill, once spent a nail-gnawing three days believing she might have abetted a suicide.

Emery, who has been a council member since she was a freshman, saw suicidal signs in a teenager she worked with after school. She talked with him about it and alerted her agency contacts.

"But it took a couple of days before he got help, and during that time, nobody heard from him," Emery said. "I thought I pushed the button for him and he had done it."

Fortunately, her friend resurfaced, asked for help, joined a rehabilitation program and has contacted her since to say he's fine.

Willie Payne, a junior who plays nose guard on the football team at Clayton High, said his biggest challenge was helping a suicidal friend "who would walk into class and start saying things he'd do because of his music, and I knew he'd stick to what he said."

Since he signed up, Payne has found it gratifying to have "people I didn't even know looking up to me."

Brian Wilson Jr., a junior at Edgewood Regional High, who hesitated to take the training because his older brother was pushing him to do it, said, "The final step came when my best friend, whose parents were getting divorced, became depressed and I worked to find out what I could do for him."

Bonnie Siddons, founder and director of the South Jersey Youth Commission, a division of SODAT in Woodbury, said the value of openness among peers is that it serves to break down defenses.

"Sometimes the family's in denial, the school's in denial, the community's in denial, but when we've got kids openly discussing problems, it makes it a lot easier for other kids to come to them.

"They know they are linked to professionals who are people these students have regular contact with in a real positive way. A lot of kids need that backup."

By being on the front line and making those referrals early, she said, peer facilitators also increase agencies' success rate in dealing with youth problems.

"We don't have the time and access to do early identification of crises. With kids who know what to look for, we can move in a lot sooner," Siddons said.

Then there is the transformation in the commission members themselves.

"They see what's happening," Siddons said. "They feel the pain their friends are going through. They've been there themselves. A lot of times, it's a lifeline for them."

"I just see a change has to occur," Goodman said. "Students are going out like unarmed soldiers into a war. And it's going to be raging on a little bit longer."

To help students arm themselves for that war, Goodman and many of the 500 other South Jersey Youth Commission members from 36 school districts have committed themselves to a statewide prevention movement. They met last week at Bordentown High School to plan a statewide youth conference in March in Jamesburg.

A similar conference last spring drew 56 schools. By 1991 they hope to have a full-fledged, statewide youth commission.

Siddons said she is convinced the establishment of a statewide commission is essential.

"I really believe if we unite the kids, it's going to increase the general awareness of the adult population that young people can be involved, and effectively."

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