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Frosh get a pal, not a pummeling

Cory Fisher

Desiree Hubbell vividly remembers the feeling of butterflies in her stomach on her first day at South Tahoe High.

After being home-schooled in grades six through eight, all Hubbell saw was a massive sea of strange faces that first day.

“I felt totally lost,” she said. “I wish someone had been there to help me more.”

Hubbell, now a junior, says her freshman experiences are what initially drew her to the S.M.I.L.E. program.

“I knew I could help kids who were as scared as I was – so it wouldn’t be as bad for them,” Hubbell said. “I think it’s important for freshmen to have someone looking out for them who’s not a teacher.”

The roughly 100 students now involved in S.M.I.L.E., or Students Making It a Little Easier, commonly refer to themselves as the big brothers and sisters on campus. Intensive training has given S.M.I.L.E. students the skills to make each freshman’s transition into high school a little smoother.

“Every freshman has someone he or she can go to,” said counselor Michelle Reilly, who runs the program along with Kasie Madden of Tahoe Youth and Family Services. “Kids who feel connected do better – our goal is to help them make a connection early on.”

Not only do freshmen have someone to talk to confidentially, S.M.I.L.E. students offer social events, campus tours, tutoring and knowledge of resources and clubs for incoming students. Each “adopts” four to five freshmen, and follows their progress throughout the year.

“S.M.I.L.E. has made an unbelievable difference,” said Principal Karen Ellis. “It’s the glue for freshmen that melds that class together. Not only do we have kids coming from the middle school, we’ve got new students from St. Theresa, home school, Silver Fork and out of town.”

The S.M.I.L.E. program began at South Tahoe in 1991 with a grant that has since run out. However, it has been well-supported by counselors from Tahoe Youth and Family Services. “We couldn’t do it without them,” Ellis said.

“Freshmen know they have someone they can talk to,” said Assistant Principal Mark Romagnolo. “As peers, S.M.I.L.E. students know what it was like to be a freshman – they have empathy and can give personal insights. They might seem more approachable on subjects like making friends, peer pressure, drugs and stress.”

With the guiding principles of trust, honesty, respect and confidentiality, students learn listening and communication techniques.

Candidates are chosen through teacher recommendations and rigorous group interviews.

“They’re trained to look for red flags – they know when to turn a difficult situation over to adults,” Reilly said. “They’re extremely important role models at school.”

“I had a great experience as a freshman, thanks to my S.M.I.L.E. counselor,” said senior Celeste Larson, who is now part of the program. “We benefit everyone we come in contact with – we touch a lot of people.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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