Support system

Lucas Gelfen

Every Monday at 5:15 p.m., 250 sophomores, juniors and seniors fill up Chalmers awaiting the pizza and soda that have become a trademark of the Upper School Peer Support program. After 30 minutes of slurping, gulping and chewing, the students meet in their designated classrooms to begin group.

Peer Support, or “group”, was created in the 1991-1992 school year by former Head of Upper School and current Senior Alumni Officer Harry Salamandra, along with former School Counselor Louise Macatee. The program’s initial purpose was to “give people a chance to share what’s going on in their lives, and to teach people how to have more meaningful relationships by learning how to listen and develop their interpersonal skills,” Macatee said.

Through the years, though some aspects of the program’s purpose may have changed, the foundation has stayed mostlythe same. Many see group as a safe place to discuss anything and everything that is happening in their lives.

“Some see it as a safe haven,” school counselor and humanities teacher Luba Bek said, “Harvard-Westlake is so competitive and so much of a race and at Peer Support there is no race. It is a place to just be.”

Meanwhile, some see group as a place to lessen the division between different grades.

“It can be really hard to trust people that are in another grade,” Sophie Sunkin ’14, who will be one of the group’s four coordinators next year, said. “So I try to eliminate that barrier, and make people more comfortable with sharing their issues.”

Sunkin also believes that the closeness a group builds throughout the year makes group more effective.

“It creates a mini-family,” Sunkin said. “We get so close and you know you can rely on every member of your group as if they were a member of your real family.”

Every group begins with a member stating the rules of Big C, the code of confidentiality, and the three red flags, being hurt, hurting others or hurting oneself, that result in a compulsory meeting with a school counselor.  Big C acts as the overarching rule that all members of Peer Support must abide by; a breach of this rule leads to expulsion from the program. Even with these consequences, Big C has been broken before.

“Of course there are always instances when someone breaks Big C,” Bek said. “But mostly, members of group abide by the rules. The leaders and trainees are very serious about following it.”

In every group, two junior trainees and two senior leaders head discussions and keep the group in check. Both trainees and leaders meet once a cycle in a class built into their schedules. Bek said that the trainees start from scratch, learning basic counseling and listening techniques, and finding ways to calm down their inner judge. Senior leaders, on the other hand, build up on skills they learned before. Both trainees and leaders also talk about red flags and issues brought up in their group.

Bek considers herself fortunate to work with the trainees and leaders.

“I am the luckiest person at the school because I work with the best kids, the cream of the crop,” Bek said. “I love how committed and caring they are.”