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Student retreats provide emotional growth in Pardeeville

January 3, 2019

PARDEEVILLE — For the more than 200 Pardeeville students participating in Youth Frontiers, the very best activity occurred at the end of the program.

The students in grades 4, 8 and 11 already had spent several hours in their respective mental health retreats learning about the values of kindness, courage and respect when they were asked to then reflect on all of it with their peers, one on one, said high school counselor Crystal Huset.

“They apologized to each other if they felt like they needed to and they extended olive branches,” she said of the final activity. The retreats were held separately for each grade level in October and November at the Wyocena Community Center.

“It was a powerful thing to see because these were old wounds being healed, wounds that were years in the making,” Huset said.

Youth Frontiers is a Minnesota-based organization that holds retreats for schools in more than a dozen states and aims to help students build strong character traits. This school year it worked with the Pardeeville Area School District for the first time as Pardeeville continues its push to promote mental health, Huset said.

The retreats coincided with several other new mental health programs in Pardeeville this school year made possible through state and federal funding and most recently through an $11,000 grant from the Department of Public Instruction.

“The staff who were at the retreat commented that they would love to see this become an annual retreat,” said elementary school counselor Megan Dietzenbach. “They feel the lessons that were taught and the way the students really took in the day helped everyone grow.”

Youth Frontiers activities during the six-hour retreats included small-group discussions, students building a “soul train,” upon which they greeted and shared enthusiasm with everyone who “came aboard,” and writing down all of the ways students could show kindness, courage and respect, Huset said.

“It’s a good six hours to dive deep into the things that have happened to them and think about the things that make us all more unique and more alike than different,” Huset said.

“These are groups of students who’ve traveled together for many, many years and there have been so many things that happened along the way. We saw a lot of healing.”

The student participants who at first seemed hesitant about joining in the activities eventually bought in and enjoyed their days, Dietzenbach said. Several of the high school participants later volunteered their time for the retreats held for students from the lower grades, Huset said.

“I noticed the kids who tended to follow the leaders become leaders themselves,” Dietzenbach said. “The transformation of children’s thinking is always amazing. You could really see that happening through their interactions with everyone.”

She said some students initially acted goofy or inappropriately, but as the day went on, they came to realize how important the activities were.

Pardeeville High School Principal Paul Weber said the school district’s emphasis on emotional growth is about developing the whole person — an approach that seems to be gaining momentum nationwide.

“In general, it might seem a little reactionary when you consider the tragedies that brought this more into focus, but it is so important to get to these problems early, to identify those who are struggling and address their needs,” Weber said.

Some of the participants later told Huset that every student should have to go through Youth Frontiers — an idea she supports.

“Sometimes it’s hard to actually see the larger impact this program might have had, but individually, in talking to kids after the fact, they could see a lot of changes happening within them,” she said.

In October, Pardeeville High School hosted for the public an eight-hour Youth Mental Health Training event provided by professionals from the national training organization Mental Health First Aid, covering topics including depression, anxiety, social media, coping skills and addictions. School staff had completed the same training in the summer — training that Huset said appears to have changed the whole conversation in the schools.

The second of three planned informational sessions is open to the public at 5:30 p.m. Monday in the high school library, where participants will learn about coping skills and social media from the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office and Aspen Counseling. At 5:30 p.m. Feb. 28 in the elementary school library, the public is invited to learn about addiction from the sheriff’s office.

“Certainly the awareness has become evident in our conversations and in the way we’re interacting with the kids,” Huset said, noting the district is working to launch small discussion groups for students for trauma support. “We’ll continue to do more and more and we do need more grants. We’re optimistic more grants will be there (for schools) because on the state and federal level we’re now recognizing the impact.”

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