WESTFIELD, NJ — Students at Westfield High School recently participated in the Girl Thing and the Guy Thing, health programs designed to educate, guide, advise and help kids work through stress associated with being a teenager. Most of the activities took place during evening “retreats” at the school.

Activities included hearing anonymous letters from seniors about what they wished they knew as freshmen, open discussions about sensitive topics and presentations from WHS faculty and other members of the Westfield community.

“My hope is that all students leave these retreats feeling less alone, more connected and with a new appreciation and perspective on what really matters in life,” said founder and WHS health teacher Susan Koelsar. “I also want them to realize that there are positive and negative ways to cope with loss, stress, rejection and any obstacles life throws at them. Finding a support system, communicating, avoiding drugs and alcohol and finding healthy outlets for emotions rather than trying to suppress them or get them out in destructive ways is key. Finally, I want them to realize that their struggles can be used to help others. We should use our mistakes and failures, as well as our successes, to help one another.”

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Koelsar said that she originally started the Guy Thing back in 2004 as a way to discuss mental health issues in a male-only environment. When girls at the school heard about it, they asked her to start one for them, as well.

While the Girl Thing took root and was an instant success, Kolesar said interest in the Guy Thing has been inconsistent. She was able to revive it last year with help from student leaders.

In past years, both programs took place during school, with students either attending events during free periods or instead of class.

“Scheduling the events during the day is a logistical nightmare,” Kolesar said. “In addition, students were sometimes reluctant to miss class and some teachers were reluctant to let them go. It also required finding large enough spaces in the building to meet and it was difficult to take attendance.”

So last year she made the Girl Thing a one-evening event.

“We ran the nighttime retreat for the girls and really liked the way it went,” Kolesar said. “So that is why we followed suit with the Guy Thing this year.”

The new format also allowed for uninterrupted, thus deeper, discussion.

The Girl Thing took place this year in March at the high school cafeteria. Female WHS seniors, called “covergirls,” helped by running food stations, playing music, taking pictures, leading discussions and reading senior letters.

There was a nice turnout and the event was successful, Kolesar said. She said that the girls “did various ice-breakers, watched a few motivational videos, heard from two teachers at the school, Madame Hoffman and Dr. Philipps, who shared personal stories of overcoming adversity, and then heard and discussed the anonymous ‘What I Wish I Knew Then’ letters from the senior girls, the hallmark of the program. We always end with a little dance time to unwind from the intensity of the evening.”

The Guy Thing also took place in March, also with help from senior volunteers, called “wingmen.”

“The guys started with some Indian Pin, ate a meal together and then listened to Mr. Browne, a favorite and long-term substitute teacher at WHS who shared some of his wisdom with them about coming of age and work ethic,” Kolesar said. “He was followed by WHS alum Marc Cervantes, class of 2012, who at 22 years of age is a regional airline pilot. He spoke about the importance of finding mentors to support and guide you in life as well as staying focused on your dreams, and giving back and being a mentor for others.”

Kolesar said that the boys built a wall to symbolize the stigma associated with males expressing emotion. At the end of the night, they tore this wall down to represent the destruction of these stereotypes and to say that it’s okay to be expressive.

Both the girls and the guys had the opportunity at their events to create “Hearts of Hope” for grieving families at Imagine, a Center for Coping with Loss.

An additional Guy Thing event was offered in-school later that month to cover more topics, including sex ed.

Kolesar thanked several people for their support and help to make the programs possible.

“We had about 70 seniors step up to be facilitators, more than any year prior,” she said. “Additionally, administrative assistants, custodians, substitute teachers, teachers and administrators offered a tremendous of support. Thanks to Mr. Ron Allen, the former school resource officer at WHS. The Westfield PAL also jumped on board to help fund these events. The PTSO supported the program financially as well, having members provide baked goods and drinks for the events. Additional funding was provided by The Westfield Municipal Alliance, substitute teacher Mr. Frank Browne and Mrs. Debra Bonomi. Casa Di Pizza and community member Mr. Greg Gradel, a Dunkin Donuts executive, also offered assistance to help us afford to feed the students. Ms. Spreitzer, a colleague of mine who has been assisting me with these programs for the past several years, deserves a special thank you, as well.”

Sarah Boyle is a student at Westfield High School participating in a journalism program with TAP into Westfield.