In its mission to foster the emotional well-being of area youth, the local social service agency Corner House has long enlisted the help of young members of the community. Divided into four teams, these students from Princeton High School, The Hun School, Princeton Day School and Stuart Country Day School focus on issues like bullying, family strife, and drug and alcohol abuse, learning techniques to cope and how to pass them on to others.
Last week, 75 participants converged on the Princeton University campus for Corner House’s annual Student Leadership Institute. The students took part in three days of team-building exercises, heard talks by guest speakers, and unwound in the evenings with a hypnotist, karaoke, and a dance party.
In early years of the program, the teams had taken part in individual retreats. But Corner House Executive Director Gary Di Blasio realized a few years ago that being a part of something bigger made the program an even more powerful tool. “You put some 70 students out in the community and they can set the standard of how things can be,” he said this week. “The Leadership Institute has become really important.”
Corner House student leaders from all four schools serve on the Student Board and the Teen Advisory Group, which is concerned with preventing abuse of drugs and alcohol. Those chosen for Project GAIA [Growing Up Accepted in America] and GAIA2, which focus on bullying and acceptance, are students at Princeton High School. The growing popularity of the programs has made admission competitive.
“The leadership programs began with the Teen Advisory Group 22 years ago. When I got here 13 years ago, I realized that the number of students applying were about four times more than we had spots for,” Mr. Di Blasio said. “So we began looking at how to expand that program for teens in the community. It seemed like leadership was something that students and parents and schools were interested in.”
The Teen Advisory Group was expanded, and the first Project GAIA was begun about 12 years ago. It became so popular that GAIA2 was added to the mix. The first Student Board had four participants; currently there are 15.
Princeton High School rising senior Harry Kioko applied to be in the GAIA program as a sophomore. “I didn’t know that much about it, but I decided to give it a try,” he recalled. “I did it sort of on a whim, as a resume-stuffer. But it quickly became a lot more than that.”
As part of GAIA and GAIA2, Harry and his colleagues went into elementary and middle schools to do workshops about acceptance, overcoming differences, and seeing the good in different backgrounds. Then he graduated to the Teen Advisory Group, which talked to middle school students about prevention, moderation, and pressures to drink and take drugs that they might encounter in high school.
As part of the Student Board this coming school year, “We act as an intermediary, I like to think, between students and adults,” he said. “We have seats on the recreation and human services boards, the Corner House board, and as a Princeton Council liaison. We raise the issues we see in school or with our friends. We also plan a lot of events for the community, like the All-City Dodge Ball tournament and Friday Live at the Library, which is geared toward creating a substance-free environment where kids can go on weekends. We really make sure they are as cheap as possible, or free.”
Taking part in these programs throughout the years has allowed him to talk to students he might not otherwise know, Harry said. “It’s really become a very close-knit family and community. It’s sort of cool, because in the past couple of years I’ve really seen Corner House gain more scope and more respect in the community,” he said. “I’ve seen myself change a lot, too. A lot of the stuff we talk about, it shapes you. It really is rewarding. You learn a lot from it. This year, I’m hoping to take it to new heights. It is a phenomenal experience.”
All of the students who take part in the Corner House leadership teams take a pledge, part of which says they will make every effort to abstain from using alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. That is especially meaningful to Princeton High School rising senior Brittany Van Name, who was on the Teen Advisory Group last year and is a member of this year’s Student Board.
“This program, for me, is an opportunity to meet other kids in the Princeton area who share my same beliefs about abstaining from drugs and alcohol while in high school,” she said. “At school, a lot of people don’t understand why I’m not at the weekend parties. When I’m at Corner House I feel more understood.”
Another PHS senior on the Student Board this year is Viraj Khanna, who learned about GAIA from his sister. She had started in her junior year and urged Viraj to apply in his sophomore year. He especially enjoyed taking part in a workshop designed to help eighth grade students transition to high school.
“Placing yourself in that role of being a role model really helps you view how you are viewed by the community,” he said. “Just knowing that more is expected of you by the surrounding community really changes you.”
Last week’s retreat was especially helpful because participants were together for three days and two nights, isolated from other distractions. “Everyone’s there. It really brings the group closer together,” Viraj said. “And you an see the transition in the group from before to after. Productivity really increases. People are communicating, suggesting ideas. Having completely candid conversations with your team members is really what brings it together.”
Chaperones for the retreat are all former student leaders. “Their commitment to passing it on, and to staying connected and wanting to stay part of it, is important,” Mr. Di Blasio said. “What I hear from students is that it gives them a sense that they’re having an impact on their community. They actually have the ability to impact their school and the town they live in. And it’s an impact that’s real.”