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Sources of Strength: A school and church working together for suicide prevention

“What keeps you up at night?”

Sue Boggs, missions coordinator at Smith Grove United Methodist Church asked Jenny McPherson, lead school guidance counselor at North Davie Middle School in Mocksville. The answer she received was a punch in the gut: lack of access to mental health for her students.  

“Each year I’ve had just such an increase in kids that have had a tendency to self harm or have suicidal thoughts,” McPherson said. “Previously it seemed like maybe it was five to 10 percent of my population. Now it seems as high as 20 percent at times. So as those numbers have increased, of course, I feel like I’m not reaching the kids as well as I need to.”

“I felt like almost a culture change needed to happen within our school, to try to help those kids and in more positive ways.”

Boggs did not need to be told twice. After researching online she came across Sources of Strength,  a program headquartered in Colorado that describes itself as “a universal suicide prevention program designed to build socioecological protective influences around youth and to reduce the likelihood that vulnerable youth/young adults will become suicidal.” The Pastor at Smith Grove UMC, Darren Crotts, was more than eager to get the church involved, and quickly a conference call was organized that included both the school and Smith Grove. 

McPherson believes Sources of Strength helps knit the existing programs at North Davie together. These programs include a student ambassador club, a big buddy club (which gets adult mentors involved in school), and character education.

Sources of Strength has “one central purpose and theme that we can really focus our energies on, that will branch out to not only suicide prevention but wellness in the community, bullying prevention, kids being connected in school,” McPherson said, “and I really think that this is also going to increase motivation with our students.”

After the conference call, the school turned to finding funding. In addition to paying for the Sources of Strength training, the school needed to find a way to pay substitutes for two days so teachers could attend the training as well as a meal for students who would participate. Crotts told everyone to let him take care of it.

Smith Grove UMC is part of the NC Rural Center’s Faith in Rural Communities initiative, which identifies congregational assets and opportunities for those church communities. Through this grant, and in partnership with The Mebane Foundation and the Davie Community Foundation, Crotts was able to secure funding for the two-day training.

Community members, including parents, educators, church members, faith leaders, and local law enforcement, joined the first day of training. This portion of the program aims to train these community members as “adult advisors” and paints the picture of every day student life. They discuss social groupings and how Sources of Strength can use specific students for network change, emphasizing how it takes a combination of the right kids to help spread messaging and make those who feel marginalized realize that they are not alone.  

While reviewing the ground work and philosophies of the program, adults run through the exact same training students will participate in the next day. Activities include drawing, team building exercises, numerous ice breaker activities, and more. After seven hours of training, the adult advisors left with resources to lean on as they become mentors and support for the youth of their community. 

The next day, 71 students from North Davie Middle School began their training with a musical chairs icebreaker. These students were nominated by teachers and had to attend an informational meeting in school before committing to become peer leaders. They were full of energy, attentive and enthused to be there.

Throughout the training, students were asked to identify things in their lives that give them strength. This set up a main piece of the program, the Sources of Strength wheel. The wheel is divided into eight pieces labeled family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activities, generosity, spirituality, medical access, and mental health.  Each can be a source of strength for someone, and when called upon, it can be a reminder that you are not alone. 

Educators participated again in all activities as part of the group, not in a traditional leadership role. This is key to getting student buy in. These trusted adults have to be seen as not just their educators but as sources of understanding, so the peer leaders can turn to them in times of distress. 

Students ended the day’s training with lunch and an excited buzz to continue this work back at school. Crotts has expressed his hope that this spreads into other Davie County schools and that his church community will continue to be involved as long as there is need. McPherson is happy with how the training went and is looking forward to a positive outcome.

“I want our kids to feel like they can make a difference and that they can build upon each other’s strengths,” McPherson said. “We have a really helping group of students, and I want them to channel that energy in the way that they can really reach each other … and connect with the adults of our school in more positive ways.”

Editor’s note: The Mebane Foundation supports the work of EducationNC.

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is the director of rural storytelling and strategy for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, STEM education and nutrition.