SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ - If you really think about it, people do not always have control over external factors.  However, individuals can control and change themselves.  This concept is highly important when remembering your place in this world and who you desire to become in order to lead your life to its utmost potential.   The New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, HiTOPS, Inc., and the Princeton Center for Leadership Training, have collaborated to create a curriculum called Teen Prevention Education also known as Teen Pep.  The program was introduced to South Plainfield High School and has persisted in making changes for the better in their community. 

The program was designed to provide, on a peer-to-peer level, sexual health education and a positive decision making model for young adults in high school.  This is a continuing program that required intensive training for faculty advisors and 23 hand selected South Plainfield junior students.  During the initial first year of implementing, NJ Teen Pep provides a course and curriculum to properly regiment the advisors in preparation for guiding their students.  The participating faculty members were required to attend several, three day retreats in order to not only learn about the program, but also work together to become proper team mates and positive role models.  The junior students who were called upon to be peer leaders in the program were interviewed and chosen based on their availability and their leadership characteristics. 

Together, the selected juniors and faculty participated in a technology- free retreat to get a deeper perspective on each individual.  The retreat enabled students to open up to the faculty as well as other students where they could create or rekindle friendships.  This event truly gave each person an opportunity to break down any barriers or preconceived notions about themselves and others which opened a new door for healthy, fluid communication tactics.

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Throughout the program, the advisors have seen dramatic changes in the way their students shine their own light when interacting with the younger peers.  Tammy Zurka, the high school’s girl’s lacrosse coach and physical education teacher states, “It is exciting to see the light bulbs go off in the student’s heads when they feel comfortable asking a knowledgeable question without judgment.  Teen Pep gives freshmen the opportunity to ask educated juniors questions on a real basis, as opposed to some misconstrued information on the internet.”

Communication is highly important in decision making and this concept is emphasized as advisors teach the junior students, and as the junior students teach their peers.  Every morning the team of juniors and faculty advisors meet for a class session before the start of the school day.  In this session, the juniors are trained through micro workshops to answer questions according to sexual education and relationship matters in all aspects of life.  The course workshops prepare the juniors with factual information and styles of communication so that they can provide the appropriate response to questions prompted by their freshmen peers. 

Zurka elaborates, “Even though there are only 23 active juniors, they are spreading the good information from a nationally accredited curriculum to their friends.”

This style of open communication allows the freshmen to feel comfortable about asking questions they ponder because they are speaking with people they can relate to.  It is the responsibility of the juniors to keep it educational and mature in order to provide the most accurate information.  One South Plainfield faculty advisor observed that the peer-to-peer engagement provides an easier understanding by using teen-lingo. 

The juniors are preparing the freshmen for the world ahead such as: college, work forces, social scenes, domestic relationships, and future partnerships.   Faculty advisor and physical education teacher, Victoria Uniacke reassures that “Every moment is a new decision: a new chance to make a new decision or even correct a decision.”  Teen Pep emphasizes decision making by getting students to understand potential consequences of certain actions.  The program teaches students to stray from unwanted desires and lead  a healthy life.  This program is designed to help teach students how to make the right decision at the most relevant time.  There is also a great desire to get all children motivated to take on life as responsible, blossoming, young adults whose lives truly matter. 

About five to six times a year the juniors meet with the freshmen and it is a time where the students push aside race, gender, and judgment, remove all masks, and feel empowered to be open and mature.  Uniacke and Zurka believe that the kids really love and enjoy this program.

However, the time is approaching where the current peer educators will be moving on to their senior year.  It will be an emotional time for everyone involved because there has been such growth that has stemmed from the program.  Current juniors will pass the torch to the rising junior peers, hoping that the tradition will continue and grow stronger.  The original members of South Plainfield High School, who helped initiate the program, have a future vision of sending students to college with the understanding of having respect for themselves. 

Uniacke says, “Teen Pep journey has given me a rejuvenation,” and understands that life can be hard for some students.  Tammy Zurka adds, “It feels like a renewed sense to love what I do.”  Zurka and Uniacke have both taken on new perspectives as teachers and are in total support of the program but really emphasize on being in the present moment.  They are getting ready to prepare for the first “Family Night” implemented by NJ Teen Pep.  This is an interactive way for the kids to present the curriculum to their parents just as the juniors have to the freshmen.  It is important to understand that this subject of education is imperative to shaping the lives of young adults.  The goal of “Family Night” is to create open communication between parents and children.  The event will take place on March 19, 2015, from 6-8 pm in the high school cafeteria.

For more information on NJ Teen Pep, visit the website