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Students take part in conference

COVINGTON -- Budget cuts canceled the state peer helper conference this year, but one local counselor didn't want area students to miss out on important information that could impact their lives and the lives of other students they help.

Tina Daniel, a counselor at Eastside High School and a member of the leadership team for the Georgia School Counselor Association, said the association had to cancel this year's state conference, which is usually held in Milledgeville, because many school systems could not afford to send students on the trip.

"We still wanted a local one," she said.

So she started making contacts to speakers she knew were planning to attend the state conference and other area supporters to organize a peer helper conference, which was held Thursday, for Newton, Rockdale and Walton county students at Georgia Perimeter College, which provided use of its campus for free.

"Working with the school systems to bring students to GPC Newton emerges from our strategic plan at GPC to foster teamwork with our communities and schools and to expand access and enrollment capacity," said Jeff Meadors, dual enrollment coordinator for the Newton Campus and the Rockdale Career Academy. "When we are able to bring local students to our campus for the purpose of helping them to understand and explore post-secondary options, I am always a willing participant."

Daniel said the peer helper program is so important to the students volunteering in it and those getting help from it and she wanted to provide more information to help them.

Peer helpers, or peer mentors, usually are found in middle and high schools and serve as mentors, tutors and mediators for fellow students. They hold special group meetings, mentor the students one on one, provide study tips or help mediate problems between multiple students.

"With other students, they are more open to talk to other students than with an adult," said Whitney Martin, a senior peer helper at Eastside High School. "They will say some things to the counseling staff, but not everything."

Since beginning in the program this school year, she has organized a teen pregnancy group book club, talks to special education classes about such issues as gossip, and mentors other students -- or mentees -- about academics, absence problems and other issues they may have at home.

"I've always been really good at analyzing things and figuring out stuff and helping people," she said. "I want to major in psychology, and I love helping people, so this will help me get experience."

Eventually, she wants to attend school to study psychology and maybe one day have a career analyzing criminals.

Getting involved in this program has helped her and fellow senior peer helper Natalie Stubbs get experience in their careers before they even get out of high school.

The two are using the peer helper program at Eastside High as credit in the youth apprenticeship program. In the program, students take a class and some of them leave school early to work at their job or internship.

Martin and Stubbs stay at school, though, since that is where they need to be to gain experience.

"I am getting more experience than I ever would have had without this (program)," Stubbs said. "I've already learned so much."

Stubbs mainly is working with one-on-one peer mentoring, already meeting with about 25 students this school year for about 15 minutes each week to discuss social problems, issues at home or school and academics.

"This is good experience and hands-on learning before I even start college," said Stubbs, who plans to attend the University of West Georgia to study psychology as an undergraduate student and school counseling in master's work before becoming an elementary or middle school counselor and eventually a child psychologist. "I love working with people."

Thursday's peer helper conference at GPC gave these two students and nearly 100 others from Newton, Rockdale and Walton county schools even more experience in peer helping.

From 9 a.m. until 2 p.m., students learned about GPC's dual enrollment program, how to help others in abusive situations, peer mediation in general, cyber bullying and etiquette through area guest speakers and role playing.

With their own workshop, Martin and Stubbs advised other peer helpers to remain unbiased when helping fellow students.

"Stay neutral," Martin said. "Don't judge because when you judge, it blocks your advice."

They suggest that any student who needs help with any home or school issue of any kind to speak to a counselor or see if a peer mentor is available.

"If you are having problems, don't give up," Martin said. "Be positive and believe in yourself and what you can achieve."

Daniel hopes to continue and grow a regional peer helper conference in the future if the state conference is still unable to be held.

"This group, largely middle and high students, asked critical questions about the college experience," Meadors said. "This was the first event of its kind at GPC Newton ... (and) Tina and I have already discussed plans to expand this event to peer helpers statewide and hold the conference once again at GPC Newton. We are looking at both fall and spring options."