Valentine's Day can be a tough time for teens. South Albany's Sources of Strength club is meeting to brainstorm ways of showing that all are loved.

Ideas on this particular day include free "Happygram" messages of friendship; "Compliment Tag," with people using sticky notes to share goodwill; and "Chain of Friends," with paper-chain links, each bearing a friend's name.

"Why don't we tell them to write why they're a good friend?" suggests senior Daniella Martinez. 

Terran Swope, president of the group, suggests suspending the chains from the ceiling, "symbolizing that the chains make us all strong, that we can hold each other up." 

"Keep in mind that theme and the core idea and purpose of these activities is to show friendship," stresses Jill Baker, South Albany counselor and the group's adviser. "We need to figure out logistically how to scoop up kids who didn't get a Happygram." 

South Albany High School was the first school in the state to adopt Sources of Strength.

Developed in 1998, the nationwide program is meant to tap into the power of social networks, using peer-to-peer messages to strengthen connections and safety nets. The idea is to prevent suicide, bullying and substance abuse by making sure adolescents know they have multiple sources of support and protective factors to rely on when times get hard.

South started using the program in fall 2016, Baker said. "We were looking for programs and this is the one we got most excited about it. We reached out to the national folks and they said, 'We'd love to get into Oregon; we haven't yet.'"

Funded by a $7,500 suicide prevention grant through the Greater Albany Public Schools Foundation, Sources of Strength is now either already going, or just starting up, at all of Albany's other middle and high schools.

The organization trains students as peer leaders to create awareness campaigns around the eight spokes in a symbolic wheel of resources: mentors, positive friends, healthy activities, family support, generosity, mental health, spirituality and medical access. 

Schools are sharing the messages in various ways, some through classes, some through clubs. 

At Timber Ridge School, which began its program last spring, Sources of Strength students held a scavenger hunt of sorts. They hid paper spokes of the resource wheel in various hallways and asked the finders to answer a question about each: "Name a positive friend," for instance. Finders' names went into a drawing for prizes. 

Calapooia Middle School Sources of Strength students started the year with grade-level assemblies and games centered on the wheel. Sixth-graders, for instance, competed to fill water bottles color-coded to match each of the spokes.

South Albany's Sources of Strength students did a monthlong "generosity" campaign last November, giving out flowers, gathering clothing donations,  and making and selling wreaths to benefit the Helping Hands homeless shelter. This time around, the focus is "positive friends."

Whatever the program, it's suggested, coordinated and led by students — which is the whole idea, said Margo DeYoung, the adviser at Calapooia.

"It's so critical that they lead each other versus an adult leading them," she said. "We can say all the right things and tell them the right things, but our credibility (gap) is that we’re old. Whatever they’re going through is far different than what we experienced."

Sources of Strength participants make it their mission to let everyone know that help exists; that resources are available for whatever they might need. 

"This incredible group of kids is doing what adults wanted to do for a long time: 'How do we reach these kids who are so anxious and so depressed?'" Baker, of South, explained. "It's that level of immediate intimacy with your peers." 

South Albany has felt the need keenly for such an intervention. Nineteen percent of respondents to an October 2016 student survey at South Albany High School self-reported they had thoughts about suicide in the past 30 days. Overall, the district has lost two youths to deaths by suicide since the beginning of the 2016-17 school year. 

Nationally, Sources of Strength was the subject of one of the nation's largest studies on peer leaders and their impact in suicide prevention. Results published in a 2010 issue of the American Journal of Public Health showed peer leaders in the program increased their school engagement and connectedness to adults and were four times more likely to refer a suicidal friend to an adult.

In the general student population, participants reported they felt more positive about adult support for suicidal youth and better about seeking help. Positive perception of adult support increased most in students with a history of suicidal thoughts.

The program is still new in Albany — North Albany Middle School, West Albany High School and Albany Options School are just now wrapping up training and developing student groups — but schools who started last year say they feel it's working. 

"As a counselor I’ve noticed more students coming to report kids having a hard time, or their friends having a hard time," said Joyce Hall, counselor for grades 6-8 at Timber Ridge. "As a positive friend, they themselves want to make sure their friends are getting support."

Hall said she's also noticed the program gaining traction in daily conversation, such as kids saying, "That's a healthy activity — oh, that's part of the wheel," when talking about, say, soccer practice.

Kaytlen Keough, a South Albany senior, said she's seen a difference in her own life since joining the group. She had struggled with personal issues and was looking for connections, and Sources of Strength gave her new insight into potential resources. Last October, she was Student of the Month.

"I can find some really healthy ways to cope with some of my stresses in my life," she said. "I see more value to my life than I did before."

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