Glencoe Peer Helpers and Sponsors assist with delivering meals to seniors at George Wallace Senior Center on Valentine’s Day. Photo courtesy of Laura Sims.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
Traditional roses and boxed chocolates could not compare to the elation abounding at George Wallace Senior Center on Monday, February 14, when a collection of caring individuals arrived to ensure the holiday proved an unforgettable treat.
Volunteers and participants with Glencoe Elementary School’s Peer Helpers program spent Valentine’s Day delivering hot meals and special goodies to senior citizens, who drove through the center’s lunch distribution line. While the students were greeted with warm smiles and gratitude, they encompassed a gift far greater than any material object: kindness.
Designed as a comprehensive, peer-to-peer support and prevention program, Peer Helpers implements a communication-based curriculum into schools to generate a safe environment where students can pursue and obtain assistance to overcome personal challenges. A ThriveWay program, Peer Helpers builds upon the philosophy that children, teenagers and young adults often seek guidance or confide in their peers before reaching out to an adult. As with Glencoe Elementary third and fourth graders, Peer Helpers selects trustworthy students to encourage and inspire their classmates – reinforcing the program’s namesake – to help their peers achieve academic, social and emotional success.
Serving as mentors, mediators, tutors and friends throughout various grade levels in all Etowah County Schools, educators nominate students displaying qualities best suited for the position, who are selected following an application process. At the beginning of each school year, Peer Helpers undergo training to recognize and respond to a broad spectrum of situations and struggles their classmates might face. These ambassadors of goodwill learn the value of connection and compassion, aiding their peers as empathetic and dependable pillars who uplift them when needed most.
Glencoe Elementary School Principal Laura Sims shared that their Peer Helpers welcome students with encouraging signs at the first of the school year, assisting students with meet-and-greets to alleviate the anxiety that might arise when transitioning to a new school.
“Our children are our ears,” said Sims, sharing how the program enlightened her perspective. “Our Peer Helpers know what concerns to listen and watch for. Because they’re so young, our children can report back to our sponsors and we’ll find ways to help those students who might not have been recognized. There have been some [students] we never even knew had an issue or a problem, and we hear through our Peer Helpers and we’re able to help them. We’ve gotten a great response.”
While Peer Helpers minister to students on their respective campuses, their efforts extend beyond the classroom, filtering into their communities. Sims and Glencoe Elementary Peer Helper sponsors Leah Smith, Courtney Hale and Kim Ginn collaborated with George Wallace Senior Center to develop a project for their Peer Helpers that plants the same benevolent seeds which flourish in the school throughout the city. Prior to Valentine’s Day, Peer Helpers personalized cards for senior citizens during Thanksgiving and Christmastime to illustrate their appreciation for a significant population in their community.
“It’s important for our students to understand that everybody needs some type of contact and some type of kindness,” said Sims, noting that ‘kindness’ is the focus of this year’s curriculum. “Our Peer Helpers don’t just respond to our students in our school; we try to reach out throughout the Glencoe community. [With Valentine’s Day] those seniors are getting contact from our children, letting them know that younger students still appreciate them and find value in them. We’re trying to strengthen that and we’re hoping what we do this year makes a difference.”
George Wallace Senior Center Director Pat Hill attributed to that positive difference, demonstrating the notable impact the students’ efforts nurtures for senior citizens. Hill shared that loneliness often affects seniors deeply, with several individuals visiting the center who have lost spouses throughout the years. Combined with the aftermath of COVID-19, seniors who are homebound or self-contained and living alone become isolated from society, deprived from interaction with people. Hill and her staff at the center, alongside the Peer Helpers, strive to evoke change in that regard, reminding seniors that they remain valuable, treasured and respected members of the community.
“It’s very good for both of them, for the older to mix with the younger generation,” said Hill. “Seniors love to be around children, and they’ve got a wealth of knowledge to give to the children. Children learn a lot from seniors, and I think they bring out the children in the adults…some good memories from when their own children were small. It’s good for the students to be involved.”
Prior to the center’s closure to the public due to the pandemic, the center provided social opportunities for senior citizens with ample activities throughout the week. While the center still provides remote meal delivery and pickup, special occasions such as the Peer Helpers visiting on Valentine’s Day gives a once missing glimmer of cheer and resurges the fellowship formerly lacking.
“Too many times, we’re not kind and we don’t think about [our seniors],” said Hill, who considers her position at the center more than a mere job, but a calling on her life. The Peer Helpers’ motto right now is learning to be kind to everyone. That’s a lesson we can all learn. There’s no age limit on that, being kind to one another. It’s time we started taking other people’s feelings into consideration. We’ve got to come together again.”
Cason Cline, Hunter Gomez, Ayden Napper, Addi Amos, Isabelle Lancaster, Wyatt Hale, Katy Talbot, Cora Hodges, Juda Abernathy, Enslee Bryant, Daniel Morgan and Callie Cook were among those Peer Helpers who attended George Wallace Senior Center on Valentine’s Day. They all commented on how meaningful the opportunity to extend such kindness proved to them, sharing how the Peer Helpers program has affected their own lives.
Ayden Napper described the chance to help seniors as an honor, while Enslee Bryant illustrated how helping people and events such as the Valentine’s Day meal giveaway transforms individuals into better citizens. She shared that being a good citizen means helping one’s town (or wherever one lives) to become better, through thoughtfulness and community service, like planting trees.
“I’ve learned [from Peer Helpers] you should always look out for people, stand up for people and be kind,” said Hunter Gomez, whose grandmother drove through the carline to receive a meal (and a hug) from him on Valentine’s Day. “If you’re a follower and your friend does something and you don’t want to do it, you may still do it because of peer pressure. If you’re a leader, you can stop those things from happening.”
Wyatt Hale said that the way people treat others is important, and that being mean to someone makes that person “wrinkle up” and become smaller than they were before, hurting their confidence. Cason Cline agreed with Cora Hodges, sharing that treating people with kindness encourages those individuals to do the same.
“When I’m walking around the school and I see somebody crying, I feel like I can help them,” said Cora Hodges, sharing that Peer Helpers fosters a cycle of kindness that creates a more understanding community. “I might sit down and ask them some questions about how they’re feeling and make sure I’m listening. It’s important to always help people, because the more we help, the more it’s going to get better. If we help and show kindness to others, I feel like they would do that to other people.”
Through developing an essential understanding of the importance of aiding others, compassionate and thoughtful Peer Helpers create a stalwart culture and climate that transcends their school, but manifests in their community through friendships, bonds and partnerships all unified for the same purpose. Sims shared that as Glencoe Elementary Peer Helpers emerge as examples for other students, she hopes the program teaches them in return – cultivating a generation of considerate leaders who value kindness, listening with accepting ears, spreading joy with inspirational words and helping the moment the opportunity surfaces.
“They have made my heart happy,” said Sims, of the Peer Helpers whose willingness to serve never wavers. “I am so proud of them and all they’re doing. I can’t wait to see what they do later in life as well.”