It’s no secret the services Gilda’s Club provides individuals and families dealing with a cancer diagnosis are essential. Some think this means merely breast cancer patients and their family, but the club supports those affected by any kind of cancer. Similarly, grief programs offered through Gilda’s Club are for anyone who has lost a loved one regardless of cause.
But Gilda’s Club also has an outreach program where they visit 5th grade classes. The Lowell location recently finished meeting with students at Alto Elementary. During Tough Stuff sessions, students are guided through discussions about difficult issues and situations which may occur in their lives and provided with suggestions on how to deal with them, with a focus on talking with someone and not feeling alone. “They realize that they have the same struggles as other friends, even if they didn’t think of it has a struggle at first.” says Julie Breen, 5th grade teacher at Alto Elementary.
Being Tough when Experiencing Tough
Gilda’s Club of Lowell visits 5th grade students in Lowell Area Schools throughout the year. One or two classes participate in each session consisting of hour-long gatherings once a week for four weeks. Julie Petrie represents Gilda’s Club in Lowell classrooms, which also visits about five elementary schools in the Grand Rapids Public Schools lead by other program staff.
Petrie has been with Gilda’s Club for eight years. Prior to her current position she was a counselor in a school district. This experience working with kids offering guidance and support made taking on the Tough Stuff, approximately seven years ago, program a good fit. The curriculum was in place when Petrie joined Gilda’s Club, but through the years she has made some tweaks.
“[We] help kids understand everyone deals with tough stuff.” says Petrie of the program. Through activities and discussion students learn they are not alone. Tough stuff for students can include the loss of a pet, a parent losing a job, parents going through a divorce, struggling with schoolwork, dealing with sports, or a friend moving away, but the list doesn’t end here. A student of any age can experience something tough and think it’s minor because they’re a kid or if a parent does not think the issue is worth addressing. However, for kids, what seems like something small through adult eyes are important from the perspective of a child.
Teachers sit in on the sessions and often learn new things about their students. “Children need to know they are not alone in having ‘tough stuff’ and they need to know there are ways to get help with ‘tough stuff’. With mental illness in children on the rise, coping is such an important issue to address at young ages.” Alto 5th grade teacher Jacqui Dimmick says of the program. Much of the time when a student is experiencing something tough in life they do it alone, suppressing feelings, not realizing help can be found and fellow students may have gone through a similar situation.
One of the first activities students participate in creating a Tough Stuff bracelet. Beads of various colors represent different tough situations students may have already experienced. Each bead placed on a student’s bracelet indicates he or she has gone through whatever the color represents. Soon students are able to see they have peers who have had to deal with the same situation or something completely different. They start to see they are not alone.
Visual representation helps students better understand thoughts and feelings which aren’t tangible. The Jar of Hope is another concept used to show students tough things exist in life but there are ways to deal with the struggles. A jar is filled with water. Food coloring is added, each color again representing a tough event. The number of drops of color added to the jar represents the number of students in the class who have experienced what the color signifies. Eventually the water appears cloudy and brown in color. Tough things can add up and become overwhelming for some.
But students are also given examples 10 strategies to use when struggling with tough stuff. For each strategy, clear drops are added to the water eventually making it almost clear again. Fifth grade student Kiah enjoyed this part of the series the most saying, “It was fun to do it and it reminded me of all the stuff I could when I was in grief.” Some of the coping strategies passed along are talking with a trusted adult and finding a safe place such as a bedroom or grandparent’s house when feeling sad or scared. Petrie also lets students know as they get older, tough stuff will continue to be part of their lives. But being empowered with ways to cope and find help can make tough times a little easier.
Talk it Out
One of the most important strategies when facing tough stuff is finding a trusted adult to talk to. An adult who will listen no matter what, whether the issue seems small or large. “I learned that I can tell people, I don’t have to keep what I am feeling to myself.” Jackson, another 5th grade student comments on what he brought away from the experience.
As discussions take place throughout the series, students open up more. Looking around the room, they realize everyone deals with tough situations. David Wright is a 5th grade teacher at Alto. He says, “I learn a lot about my students’ lives and what they are dealing with at home. I also find out what ways my students deal with stresses and difficult challenges.” Teachers may also learn different ways to help students dealing with tough stuff as Petrie talks with the kids.
Gilda’s Club’s Tough Stuff program gives students the tools needed to handle challenging situations. They realize peers have gone or are going through hard times. And they can be confident in their ability to overcome small and large bumps in the road using various strategies and being able to talk with someone about the situation. When asked why it’s important for students to learn about tough stuff, Yovani, who is a 5th grade student at Alto Elementary, responds, “Because keeping feelings to yourself is harder and it would be better to share with an adult.”
Teachers agree with the importance of students participating in these sessions. “With the internet and social media being as ubiquitous as it is, students may be sharing their issues and problems with people who are not in their physical circle of friends and families. Learning how to deal with tough stuff reminds students that there are people in the real world who are able and willing to help them.” says Wright. Fifth grade students are often seen in a transition period as they end their time in elementary school and move on to middle school. This time can also be stressful and tough for students. Knowing peers are likely experiencing similar thoughts and feelings and people are around to listen and help can help ease students’ minds.
It’s important to provide all students age appropriate coping skills and the ability to find an adult who will listen and offer support. Gilda’s Club of Lowell is welcomed each year into Lowell elementary schools as Julie Petrie leads 5th grade students through Tough Stuff. Kids can learn from adults through positive discussion and interactions, but oftentimes adults gain from the experience as well.