Connecting Columbia Union Seventh-day Adventists

Shenandoah Valley Academy, Sources of Strength

Students Lead Strength-Based Wellness Program Launch

Story by Darlene Anderson

As 28 students filed into the classroom, music teacher Daniel Biaggi, an adult advisor for the Sources of Strength program, observed them. “We could see in their faces several feelings,” he shares. “In some cases, curiosity or expectation. But we could also see something like a protective barrier— and a lot of skepticism.”

It was an unusual mix of students, with representatives from each class and a variety of friend groups. Each had been carefully chosen and invited to this special day of training to be a peer leader for Sources of Strength, a strength-based wellness program that focuses on suicide prevention and also impacts issues such as substance abuse and violence.

For seven hours, Stephanie Powell, the girls’ dean, and Darlene Anderson, the campus nurse, who are currently working on certifications as Sources of Strength trainers, worked with the program’s founder, Mark LoMurray. Together, they led the students in games, activities, and times of sharing and learning. Some staff and community volunteers who attended an earlier training participated as adult advisors, playing games and leading discussions with the students.

“As time went by, the students began to open up and participate,” observed Biaggi. “They got involved, lowered that barrier, and were open and vulnerable.”

At one point, students and adults could be heard laughing as they jostled together in the center of the room, mimicking the mountains, chicken farms and rivers of the Shenandoah Valley. Minutes later, the room was filled with the gentle sounds of students sharing as they sat in small groups. Each of the games, activities and sharing times were designed to help the students have fun while learning messages of hope, help and strength. Through extensive research, these messages have been shown to be protective factors against the many risks students face.

It did not take long for students and staff to observe that these messages are in the Bible and Ellen White’s writings—themes already implemented at the academy. “It isn’t about learning something new; it’s about discovering what we already have,” says Olivia Patrick, a peer leader.

Developing and using strengths such as spirituality, physical health, generosity, gratitude and adult mentors as tools to navigate difficult times is what the program is all about. It also highlights sharing these tools with peers in order to change school culture so that it becomes strength-focused and help-seeking behavior becomes the norm.

As the day drew to a close, Biaggi notes, “I was seeing the students’ faces. There were expressions of hope like, ‘We are willing to help. This could really make a change on our campus!’” One student put it this way: “You have given me a purpose.”

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