By Seleena Moore, Program Manager, School-Based Health Alliance
This story comes from the Alliance’s youth engagement toolkit Lead the Way: Engaging Youth in Health Care. Each month, a new reflection from the field will touch on a different component of youth engagement and show how youth are leading the way in health awareness and promotion.
Natural Helpers is a statewide, peer-to-peer education program that boasts more than 20 years of supporting New Mexico youth. Peer-to-peer education is the teaching and sharing of health information, values, and behavior between people who share similar social backgrounds or life experiences. This method allows youth to confide in the people they trust: their friends. School leaders created the program back in 1994 to help with problems like teenage suicide. Its goal has remained constant: to create a safe and supportive school and community environment by opening lines of communication between students.
(To learn more about the importance of peer-to-peer education, view the Developing Youth Leadership Skills section of our toolkit!)
After the Natural Helpers are trained in listening, problem-solving, and exercising self-care, students are able to support their peers and adults. Twenty years later, the program is still a success! Students feel more comfortable coming to friends and staff and parents feel more comfortable knowing Natural Helpers are familiar with health center services and trained to be aware of their own limitations. Today, the 20 Natural Helpers programs across New Mexico have trained thousands of students to be leaders and advocates in their communities.
“The program is based on the premise that when young people have problems, they often turn to friends whom they trust for help, and that within every school an informal ‘helping network’ exists. The program seeks to identify this informal network of young people who represent all the different subgroups within schools and provide training and support to those who already serving as helpers.”
Sustaining their success
Staff at Natural Helpers credit much of the program’s success to the recruitment and retention strategies they use. Natural Helpers aren’t chosen based on academics; they use an anonymous, school-wide survey to identify the young people that others already seek out for help. The survey also identifies a few adults within the school whom they invite to be “sponsors” of the program.
The selected group then attends a retreat, in a camp setting away from school, where they participate in outdoor activities to foster team-building, trust, and resiliency. The retreat creates a supportive, dynamic bond between the group members and builds cohesion among the diverse collection of people. Natural Helpers preserves this bond with additional trainings throughout the year where members can come together and rejuvenate their bond.
Leadership development programs like Natural Helpers establish support networks that motivate youth to fully participate in community life. Most importantly, young people receive knowledge and skills that equip them with the confidence to effect positive social change in their schools and at home.
To learn more about engaging youth in YOUR health center, we encourage you to explore our toolkit Lead the Way: Engaging Youth in Health Care and share your comments and stories below!