On Sept. 2, just a few days before the start of school, 31 student  volunteers from Westfield High School’s “Guy and Girl Thing” program were trained by the staff of Imagine, A Center for Coping With Loss, on how to create a more supportive school environment. 

Through a grant from the Westfield High School PTSO, the students received six hours of intensive training about grief and loss and the many barriers that keep people from expressing their emotions and reaching out for help. Additionally they learned strategies for facilitating peer groups and how to be active and empathetic listeners.  They will put their knowledge and skills to use not only in their personal relationships but also through facilitating informal “Hangout” sessions which students can attend on various topics such as coping with divorce, the illness or death of a loved one, academic stress, learning disabilities, and more.  The “Hangouts” are scheduled to begin for Westfield High School students in October and run throughout the school year on a bi-weekly basis.

“Students have the best chance of thriving emotionally, socially, and academically when they feel connected, supported, and understood,” explained Susan Kolesar, Health teacher at Westfield High School and founder of the “Girl and Guy Thing” program. “They become more resilient in the face of life’s challenges and losses and less likely to turn to unhealthy coping strategies such as substance abuse, violence, self-harm, bullying, and social withdrawal,” she added. 

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Many students who took part in the training expressed how impactful it was. Senior Kevin Wang said, “It was an amazing experience of self-discovery. Practicing facilitating, I felt fulfilled, like I had found my purpose, and as a result of my time at Imagine, I plan to explore similar opportunities in the future.”  Another participant, senior Aliyah Barnes said, “The training gave me insight of what to take into consideration when running the groups. I really liked how hands-on Imagine created the training.”  As to why senior Molly Whitehead volunteered to be a facilitator she said, “I chose to be a facilitator to make my peers feel supported within our school community.”

“The Guy and Girl Thing” was started by Kolesar 2004 to have seniors teach underclassmen about health-related topics. Various activities have been incorporated throughout the years including assemblies, students and teachers sharing their life-stories, retreats, and most notably, the reading and discussion of the “What I Wish I Knew Then…” letters that the seniors write to the underclassmen each year.  According to Kolesar, “A goal of the program this year is to help students feel less alone, a resounding theme in many of the letters over the last several years.”  Health teacher Michelle Spreitzer has been assisting in the programs since 2007. Both teachers were trained by Imagine and were volunteer facilitators there. They also both completed sixteen hours of Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) through Caring Contact this summer. Kevin Everly, who also teaches health, and Paul Valenzano, a guidance counselor at WHS, will be actively involved in overseeing the program as well.

Beyond providing peer support groups to the public, Imagine also provides grief education to both students and school staff.  This training was led by Imagine’s Connie Palmer, LCSW and Clinical Training Director at Imagine, Corey Wisler, MSW, Grief Recovery Specialist, Nick Breza, and Caroline Snizek. The latter three are Westfield High School alumni. Palmer said, “I was so inspired by the compassion and resilience of the students and of the district's commitment to foster a culture of emotional health and wellness.  By making it a priority to help students cope with all types of loss and life transitions and grow in their resiliency, Westfield High has taken great strides in ensuring a culture that promotes learning. I left the training filled with hope that more school districts throughout NJ will follow Westfield's lead in ensuring all students receive this life changing training."

To learn more about The Guy and Girl Thing program at Westfield High School or to make a donation to help fund “The Guy and Girl Thing” program, contact Susan Kolesar at skolesar@westfieldnjk12.org. To learn more about Imagine or to make a donation, go to www.Imaginenj.org.  Information regarding the mental health and suicide prevention trainings offered by Caring Contact can be found at www.caringcontact.org .