Natural Helpers Program Comes to Barranca Elementary

Barranca Mesa Elementary School students and teachers. Courtesy photo
Natural Helpers Program Comes to Barranca Elementary
By Nicole McGrane, M.Ed

This is my fourth year teaching at Barranca. Over my years teaching here, I have had students abused, suffering from depression, stressed beyond belief, socially inept, suicidal, bullied, and more. I was tired of seeing students struggle and feeling like I wasn’t doing enough. They should not be fighting these battles alone. If these kids are truly our future, we must invest heavily in them now. Students must learn not only how to support each other but to accept support from others. Mr. Parker, our school principal, brought Natural Helpers to my attention as a way to address the needs of our student population. After investigating the program, I agreed and with the support of Mr. Parker and Dr. Schmidt, the superintendent, I worked to get this program in place for our school.

The Natural Helpers program is for 5th and 6th grade students at Barranca. If the beginning success is any indication, this program will continue for many years. Natural Helpers is a peer-to-peer helping program, meaning students learn how to help their friends and other students who need someone to talk to. Natural Helpers are students who are identified by their peers as someone they can trust, someone who cares, and someone who likes to help others. The identified students are then trained and supported by adult mentors to positively help and support their peers. As students mature through their pre-teen and teenage years, their peers become more and more important. This program helps build a network within this group that is educated, strong, and committed to supporting other teens. 

In a recent article found in the Los Alamos Daily Post, written by Carol Clark about her interview with Dr. Marvel Harrison about actions to combat suicide, Dr. Harrison states that: “We need to raise resilient children, to support our children and each other to learn good social skills and emotional fluency.” This program helps accomplish that goal. Since implementing this program we’ve received comments from students like, “It is so nice to have someone to talk to that I can trust.  I know that by the end of the day not everyone will know what I said.” Parents have said, “Thank you! We are so happy and thankful for Natural Helpers.” Students who have been selected and trained have said, “It feels great to know how to truly help others.” I believe this program empowers our youth and strengthens our community in the process.

We hope that the success of our program will motivate other Los Alamos Schools to implement it as well. We are working to share our experiences and support other schools as they work to implement Natural Helpers in their schools. Currently, we are working with two interested elementary schools and the middle school. It is our vision that other schools will join the High School and Barranca in order to provide this program for all 5th through 12th graders in Los Alamos. The more students who are confident in themselves and can support their peers, the stronger our youth will be. 

I would like to thank all those who have made this program at Barranca possible. First, I want to give a big thanks to Audrey Juliani, Barranca 5th grade teacher, for joining me early in the process and whom I’m lucky to have work with me to implement the program. I would also like to thank our school nurse, Sheila McClees, who spent the night with us at our retreat and has been a source of huge support. Special thanks to JoAnn Sartorius, from the NM Department of Health, for helping us have such a successful retreat and sharing her expertise with us. Critical funding has been provided by the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, Kiwanis, Barranca Elementary, and Barranca PTO. The YMCA has also provided support by donating day passes to our students for team building activities this year. Lastly, we want to thank parents, community, staff, and students who have been extremely supportive of our efforts. Together, we will make a difference in Los Alamos youth. 

“Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~Margaret Mead