Peer Helpers pay it forward

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Members of the MFL MarMac McGregor Center’s Peer Helpers, pictured with guidance counselor Marnie Carlson (back, far right), are (front, left to right) Lexy Johnson, Brinan Berger, Destiny Berns, Rosemary McGeough, Tejanna Hatt, Megan Lang, Ashley Weaver, Aleyna Rodriguez, Riley Whitney; (back) Kaleb Tilson, Cedrick Drahn, Ethan Stubbs, Zach Howe, Tyler Trappe, Mackenzy Ruff, Marlene Franzen, Jacob Trudo, Anna Stoddard, Ben Miene and Ari Cummuta. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

As you enter the MFL MarMac McGregor Center, an orange unity chain is visible hanging from the ceiling. The chain was the work of the Peer Helpers, who encouraged students to write positive comments on strips of paper, then link them together. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

For the MFL MarMac McGregor Center’s Peer Helpers, it’s all about paying it forward.

A leadership group of 20 select seventh- and eighth-grade students who demonstrate good character traits, Peer Helpers focus on two areas—youth mentoring and school and community outreach.

“For the mentoring program, students are matched up one-on-one with a fourth or fifth grader who could use extra support academically or socially,” explained guidance counselor Marnie Carlson.

The goal, she noted, is to create a positive influence at school for younger kids.

Trying to leave as much of an age gap as possible, seventh graders are paired with fourth graders and eighth graders with fifth graders. From there, Carlson said she matches Peer Helpers with their “pals” based on gender and personality—whether they’re an introvert or extrovert.

“I ask what the pals want, and a lot pick to be with someone they are like,” she said.

Carlson said students are also matched based on their reading scores since, beginning this year, much of the weekly mentor time is spent reading together.

“The pal brings a book and they take turns reading, working on fluency and comprehension,” she said.

All Peer Helpers received training from reading teacher Jonelle Kann, which taught them strategies to use to help students read. They also learned about how to talk with their pals about the books and what kinds of questions to ask.

After they’ve finished reading, the Peer Helper and pal can either talk, play games or shoot hoops.

The Peer Helpers and their pals also enjoy one lunch and recess together each month, where they can just have fun and talk with one another.

The Peer Helpers have enjoyed giving back to their pals.

“I like to help them like books more,” said Tyler Trappe, an avid reader himself.

“I’m a pretty good student, so I wanted to help kids be better students,” added Riley Whitney of why she wanted to get involved.

“I like helping other people and helping them feel like they’re smart,” noted Tejanna Hatt.

For Peer Helper Aleyna Rodriguez, it’s about letting students know that they’re part of something, that they’re not left out.

That idea feeds into the group’s role as peer advocates.

“I want to use them more for peer advocacy for bullying,” Carlson said, “to be the allies or upstanders who don’t tolerate bullying.”

This year, Peer Helpers talked to classes about bullying, organized dress-up days during October, which is bullying prevention month, and read special announcements to raise awareness. They also created an orange unity chain. For this, all the students at school wrote a positive comment on a strip of paper, then linked all the strips together.

In addition to these activities, Peer Helpers helped coordinate and decorate for Red Ribbon Week. Students went to the fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms and gave the younger kids pledges to be drug-free.

For instances like this, the Peer Helpers are a good asset, Carlson said.

“Sometimes it’s better if it comes from someone at school rather than an adult,” she said.

The Peer Helpers’ work doesn’t end there. The group also planned special Veterans Day announcements and encouraged students to wear red, white and blue. They’re helping the school’s HYPE group put together the winter formal and, this winter, they’ll run a “Pennies for Patients” drive. Last year, the fundraising effort raised over $1,000 for Iowa families dealing with blood cancers. In May, Peer Helpers will organize activities and dress-up days for character week.

In just a couple weeks, Carlson said the Peer Helpers are going to assist with a new project.

“They’re going to take a field trip to the Clayton County Food Shelf and help organize the food collected at the Holiday Train,” she explained.

The group does a lot from school, she said, but noted that getting out into the community will be even more meaningful.

With such a busy schedule of activities, Carlson said she’s proud of the time the Peer Helpers devote.

“Anything I put on them, they’re excited about it and they want to help,” she said. “They’re go-getters.”

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