Peer Counselors Provide 'Special Friends'

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For some 15 years, when young people in our community have needed someone besides an adult to talk to, Payson High School's peer counseling class has provided that outlet.

Taught by Judy Michel, a PHS guidance counselor, and Dean Pederson, who works with elementary students through Rim Guidance, the class teaches the counseling skills young people need to work with both younger students and their peers.

"We teach them counseling skills in the first nine weeks, then in the second nine weeks we start the Special Friends program at Julia Randall and Frontier," Michel said. "The third nine weeks we do the middle school and Payson Elementary, and the last nine weeks we do sharing groups at the high school."

Special Friends is a one-on-one program where a member of the peer counseling class meets weekly with an elementary student who has been referred by a teacher. The students who are referred often have a special-need situation of one sort or another sometimes a broken home or a parent in prison and having an older, caring student to talk to can often work wonders.

"There is something about high school students," said FES Principal Sue Myers. "They just have a magic that we adults don't. You can see the light in our kids' eyes when they see their Special Friend."

The high school sharing groups are usually facilitated by two or three class members, according to Michel.

"These sessions are a time when students can feel comfortable and share issues in life relationships, divorces, school issues," she said.

This year, 19 students are taking the peer counseling class, each of whom went through an intensive screening process before being accepted. Only juniors and seniors are allowed to enroll.

Besides helping others, the students who are accepted and take the class end up getting a lot out of it themselves.

"These are usually kids who plan some type of career in a social field," Michel said. "It's a class like they've never had before. They learn some life skills and they get to know themselves better.

"We hear back from students who graduate who say this is one of the classes that helped them the most."

Like many valuable programs, this one often spills out of the schools and into the community.

"It means so much to our elementary kids when they see their special friend somewhere out in the community," Myers said. "They can't wait to come back and tell us about it."

In some cases friendships have formed that have endured for many years.

"It's rewarding for everybody," Michel said. "For the kids taking the class, for the kids they help, and for Dean and I as well. These are super kids we work with."

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