Dr. Roselind Bogner (back row, third from left) with her peer helping program class.

The women in Dr. Roselind Bogner’s Special Topics: Peer Helping Program class were a diverse group representing schools and community-based organizations in Niagara Falls. But they had a common goal: to develop a peer helping program for the people they serve.

The course was one of several mental-health-focused initiatives funded through a grant from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation and administered through the Levesque Institute for Civic Engagement at Niagara University. Peer helping programs, which empower and develop the whole student, align with the mission of the foundation, which is to improve the health and well-being of poor, underserved, vulnerable, and disadvantaged individuals within New York state.

“We found that the mental health programs we offered through generous funding from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation had a significant impact on the university community,” said Dr. Karen Kwandrans, executive director of the Levesque Institute. “We are happy that programs like the peer mentoring class will now be disseminated to the Niagara Falls Central School District, the NU community, and individuals in high-need areas served by community organizations.”

Dr. Bogner, a certified peer program educator, adjunct professor in the Niagara University College of Education, former high school counselor, and self-described “zealot” about peer helping programs, has established these programs in schools both locally and nationally. She has also presented numerous workshops to teachers and counselors on the development and implementation of these programs. But this was the first time she offered the course for people who were not educators.

“It was so rewarding to me to see that people want to do these programs within their church or within their community,” she said. “This experience has been very enlightening for me, too.”

Dr. Bogner showed the women the process of developing, organizing, implementing, and marketing their proposed peer helping programs, as well as how to train peer helpers and evaluate the programs against the standards and ethics established by the National Association of Peer Program Professionals.

According to NAPPP, peer programs are simply people helping other people. When people experience frustrations, worries, concerns, and other life events, they typically turn to their friends, not professionals, for help, advice, practical assistance, and support. Peer helpers often become preventative agents who identify problems and encourage others to seek the necessary help from appropriate professionals.

Research has shown that positive older role model peers have enormous effectiveness in engaging students in learning; connecting them to school and trustworthy adults who value education; increasing attendance and achievement; and decreasing violence. These helpers also play a key role in improving attitudes or behaviors about substance abuse (including tobacco), conflict management, communication skills, family violence, suicide, gangs, dating, responsible sexuality, teen parenthood, harassment, bullying/teasing, appreciating diversity, and school behavior.

The women applied the NAPPP’s standards to their programs to fine-tune their ideas, which included RISE (Resources Inspiring Student Excellence), a program at Niagara Falls High School to help youth avoid harmful behaviors, learn practical life skills, and become engaged in learning; Magnificent Gems, which would encourage girls to “think big, dream big, set goals, believe in themselves, work hard, and know that their circumstance and surroundings don’t have to be their outcome”; Train Up A Child, a church-based program based on Proverbs 22:6 to help the youth become the best versions of themselves; MENtoring Academy of Niagara, which would connect males of color between the ages of 18-24 with well-established, professional men of color who can positively influence and intentionally enrich their lives; a parent peer mentorship program to engage parents of students within the Niagara Falls School District; and Inspiring Sistas, which intends to empower women to manifest changes within themselves, their families, and their communities through positive relationships and mentorship.

Ta-Shara Carter created Inspiring Sistas in 2021. She enrolled in this course because she wanted to learn what factors were necessary for a program to be successful and to adjust her plan accordingly.

“I knew by taking this course it would help me put together a solid program to make a difference and help create a positive change for my community and my city as a whole,” she said.

Now that she has completed the course, Carter plans to re-introduce the program with a slight shift in focus from the collective needs of the women in the community to those of the individual women in the program.

“This class helped me to structure the way the program should look, things to include in the vision of the program, and ways to develop programmatic lesson plans to incorporate into my program,” she said.

One of the course’s biggest takeaways, said Dr. Bogner, was the relationships the women developed with each other and with her. 

“I really felt a connection to them, and I think a number of them felt the same way because they wrote about how the experiences in class really helped them to know each other,” she said. “They learned to trust, to share, to collaborate, to have faith in each other, and how important it is to inspire the people within their program, and they came to realize that there were people they could rely on.”

Dr. Bogner plans to keep in touch with the women to offer assistance and encouragement as they establish their programs, as well as to strengthen the bonds they formed during the 15-week class.

“I would love to do this class again for adults in the community, and invite some of these women to come back and talk about what they did,” she added.

For more information on starting a peer helping program, contact Dr. Bogner at rbogner@niagara.edu  or  roselindruth@gmail.com.