Program aims to empower students to prevent abusive relationships

Preventing abusive actions and relationships starts with knowledge and empowerment, and equipping youth with these tools should start early—that’s why the Women and Children’s Shelter of Barrie runs the POWER program in Simcoe County schools.

The POWER program, originally created by Family Transition Place in Orangeville, covers topics such as understanding aggression in yourself and others, substance abuse, depression and suicide, body image, and the power of media, all in an age-appropriate and engaging way. This school year, the program facilitators have presented more than 200 times in Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) elementary and secondary schools.

“We have reached more than 3000 students this school year—that’s thousands of students who have learned how to recognize and define various forms of violence, where to reach out for support, and to how to demonstrate respect for themselves and others,” said Samantha Short, Youth Outreach and Awareness Program Coordinator at the shelter. “We really want to stop abusive relationships from ever starting, and we’ve learned that it’s best to have a program like this as children and teens are developing their relationships and self-image.”

The program is designed to reach students in a relevant way that generates discussion, Short added. It includes several modules that cover specific topics youth face as they grow and develop new relationships.

“We cover some deep and difficult topics, but these are important concepts for youth to talk about. Once students can recognize and understand these topics, we hope they feel empowered to do something about them. If the POWER program stops one person for hurting themselves or entering into an abusive relationship, then we’ve made a huge difference.”

Short said she hears about life-changing moments from students often. One student from a Barrie SCDSB secondary school feels the program saved her life.

After taking the program, Grade 10 student Amy* wrote to the shelter: “I am proof that this program can help someone create a better outlook on life, to help themselves…I was in a dark place a few months ago, having thought suicide was the only answer, but with help from this program (and others), I made it through.”

While in the program, students are encouraged to look at their own lives and relationships and see what behaviour is healthy and acceptable, and what is potentially damaging.

“All of the information they taught us was relevant and eye-opening,” Amy wrote. “I didn’t realize that so many other people could be going through what I was going through. I have had many abusive relationships with people, be it with friends or family. With this program, I was taught many ways to get out of a situation and help myself…I felt safe and the presenters made me feel like I wasn’t alone.”

It is helpful for students to have people visit schools to teach the program rather than have teachers run it, Short added.

To increase student access to professionals, people from other agencies visit schools to address particular topics. Someone from the Canadian Mental Health Association may discuss depression and anxiety while a social worker might address relationships.

Short said that what’s important is that students leave the program feeling empowered and ready to develop healthy relationships with themselves and others.

Amy thinks the POWER program met this goal: “The program brought my classmates closer, realizing we all go through a lot and can help each other. I now see my classmates helping people who are being bullied, or they are spreading awareness about certain issues we talked about. I believe that the POWER program has a great deal of importance in my school. I am proof that it can help someone create a better outlook on life and to help themselves.”

To learn more about the POWER Program, call Short at (705) 721-9977 ext. 327 or email samantha@barrieshelter.com.

*Name changed to protect student’s identity

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