Milwaukie High School program accentuates the positive
In popular usage, SOS is the international Morse code distress signal. But to a group of students at Milwaukie High School/Milwaukie Academy of the Arts, SOS stands for Sources of Strength, a national program that seeks to promote hope, help and strength in schools and surrounding communities. It is a youth suicide-prevention project unique in that it uses peer leaders to encourage students to seek help, while also promoting connections between peers and caring adults.
In April 2016, a ninth-grader at MHS/MAA took his own life. After that traumatic event, Heidi Pullen, the student's English teacher; Jennifer Krumm, one of the school counselors; and many students formed a mental health task force to do more to help students.
The group learned about Sources of Strength and applied to be one of two schools in the state to pilot the program, funded by the Oregon Health Authority.
MHS/MAA received the go-ahead on the Sources program in August 2016 and started that school year with materials supplied by the program, Krumm said.
Sources of Strength is "an evidence-based, wellness-based prevention program," she said.
"It is an upstream prevention program, which refers to approaches that reduce risk factors or enhance protective processes, with the aim to reduce the likelihood that youth will become suicidal or engage in high-risk behaviors," she said.
"By improving a youth population's capacity to overcome difficult life challenges, we seek to lessen hopelessness and increase resiliency," Krumm said. "What makes Sources of Strength different is its use of peers.
"Peer leaders represent the diverse population of the student body and use their leadership qualities to enhancing positive schoolwide norms for coping with emotional distress and life stressors. The program is based on the social-network theory that we are all connected and students can have a positive influence on the norms and culture within a school."
Many programs do not use peer leaders and they focus on sad, shocking or traumatic messages. The peer leaders with the Sources of Strength program are the connectors to help and conduct campuswide campaigns to focus on the messages of hope, help and strength, Krumm said.
The main visual focus of the Sources of Strength program is a wheel, a colorful pie chart with eight areas that identify sources of strength: family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality, medical access and mental health.
The wheel is central to training peer leaders, asking them where they find their sources of strength and what helps them get through the tough times in their lives.
Those students can then take the positive messages out into the school community.
"The teachers are so supportive; there are wheels in every classroom and some of our teachers use the wheel in class activities," Krumm said.
"In class, teachers tell students to write about their strengths and how they create a positive outlook," said Danna Guzman, 17, one of the peer leaders for Sources of Strength.
"We ask students to focus on what is good in life, what strengths they have within to help them through, rather than the negative. We want to bring hope to our peers," she said.
"Our goal is to connect people who need help" with caring adults, Krumm added.
One of the campaigns the group does every year is ask students to identify who the trusted adults are in their lives. The students are given thank-you cards they can write to them and the peer leaders will deliver them to the staff.
"We want to build that trust in the peer leaders, and we want the students to know the teachers and other staff can be trusted mentors," Krumm said.
The first year of the program was kind of difficult, Guzman said, because some students were suspicious of it, probably because they didn't know what the program was about.
But "now people know us and they want to be part of the change. We had to go through that to get to this," she said.
Students interested in becoming peer leaders may be nominated by a staff member or by another peer leader or they can nominate themselves. They spend a whole day in training and then establish a schedule of meetings at lunch or after school.
Peer leaders plan campaigns to spread positive and strength-based messages around the school. Last year, that included putting messages on every locker in the building. But this year there are no lockers because the historic building that once housed the high school is being razed, and most classes are now taught in modules on the MHS football field. The North Clackamas School District is constructing a new MHS main building as part of the 2016 voter-approved capital construction bond. Check out a video of the school construction here:
"We started this year with positive messages written on sticky notes that we placed on mirrors in every bathroom on campus. Our spirit is still here, even if our school is torn down," Guzman said.
These modular buildings have a gray exterior, and to add some needed color, MHS students and staff spent Sept. 29 creating 24 decorative panels of varying sizes to be mounted to the buildings' exterior to help build a sense of community. The Sources of Strength program will have the strengths wheel on one of the panels, placed for all students to see.
The modular buildings are expected to be in use until August 2020.
Senior Jaydon Ray, 17, is another peer leader, and he says he knows the SOS program is working.
Last year, "a lot of kids came up to me and told me this was helpful, and I told them they could talk to me any time," he said.
"Kids here really need this."
Peer leader Le'Ori Wilson, 17, considers herself an outgoing, friendly person, who especially likes to let new students know she is there for them, she said.
She has recruited students to help with campaigns and noted that siblings and their friends have joined the group.
Jennifer Servin 17, another peer leader, noted the importance of keeping parents in the picture, adding, "We get a lot of students to talk to their parents because parents don't know what SOS is."
A parent information night about teen mental health is planned.
Servin further noted that peer leaders are not trained to solve students' problems, but instead to "connect them to a trusted adult."
She added that she has always been shy, but the SOS program has helped her grow as a person, and she now is motivated to start that first conversation with students.
Peer leader Rachel Saechao, 17, said she knew the program was working when she heard a lot of nice comments about the locker tags last year.
"Everyone enjoyed it and smiled. School is not the easiest thing, but when students see the Sources of Strength stuff, they know they're in a safe spot," she said.
Guzman noted that one of the most important skills that peer leaders can develop is listening.
Being listened to "makes you feel validated and that people care about you," she said. "We listen to everybody; to connect with someone and knowing you made a big impact on someone's life is a good feeling."
Guzman added that working with SOS "has a domino effect. First we got into the program, then our friends did, then our siblings and their friends. And positivity goes through it."
What: The Sources of Strength program at Milwaukie High School/Academy of the Arts
More: To learn about the MHS program, contact Jennifer Krumm at
Online: To learn about the national SOS program, visit sourcesofstrength.org
Donations needed: Those interested in donating money to Sources of Strength, may contact Krumm at 503-353-5841. She is also looking for restaurants to donate food for peer training sessions or for special events throughout the year.