This Thanksgiving, what kind of stories did you tell around the dinner table?

If you’re like my big Irish-Catholic family, they may have been stories about long-past camping trips gone wrong, the crazy things our little kids have said or done recently (like three-year-old Noah seeing the Christmas decorations and saying, “Mom, da house wooks wike a miwacle!”), or a choreographed Christmas dance the cousins once did as children that is on a home video that some of us still hope never surfaces.

I am blessed that the holidays are times of laughter and love, food and family, kitchens and hearts warmer and fuller than normal.

The stories we share help define who we want to be and the kinds of relationships we want to have. There’s a reason that Jesus taught through parables, that each political speech includes personal tales about exemplary citizens, that our children want to be read to before they go to sleep at night. Our hearts are built for story, and we all yearn not only to hear others’, but also to tell our own.

An alarming change occurring in modern adolescent culture is the normalization of stories of crisis. As we work in schools and communities to break stigmas surrounding issues like depression and suicide, an unintended side effect can sometimes be that these phenomena seem more prevalent than they are. As a school, we have been searching for the right way to balance our ability to help our students, staff, and parents have conversations surrounding difficult topics without making anyone’s default perspective one of crisis and pain. This is critical, because the stories we tell shape our narratives and how we view the characters at work within.

Providentially, in our work researching this topic (and with the help of some friends of St. James), we have found what we believe to be a great framework for helping us accomplish this goal. Towards the end of November, we hosted our first Sources of Strength (SOS) training at St. James in preparation for the implementation of our version of this program next semester. Sources of Strength is a nationally-known organization that has been doing research-based “upstream” suicide prevention for over twenty years throughout the United States.

The premise of SOS is simple: help students recognize and access the positive forces in their lives that can help get them through difficult times. The program identifies eight such “sources of strength”: Family Support, Positive Friends, Mentors, Healthy Activities, Generosity, Spirituality, Medical Access, and Mental Health support SOS provides opportunities for students to share their stories of strength, help, and hope related to these strengths to help normalize health and recovery and prepare students with the tools already in their lives to get through hard times when they inevitably come.

Sources of Strength is not a curriculum. It doesn’t come with lessons to be taught or material to be covered. Instead, it is a framework to be used and applied to meet the needs of a particular context. This is both the best and most challenging part of the program for us. It is the best part because it allowed us to adapt an existing secular framework to meet our unique mission. As you’ll see below, SOS allowed us to adapt their “wheel” to put Christ at the center. We discussed during our training how the eight sources identified by SOS are all ways that God works in our lives. He works through Family Support, Positive Friendships, and Mentors because the people in our lives are made in His image, temples of the Holy Spirit in whom God Himself dwells. Generosity, Healthy Activities, and Spirituality align to the practices of our faith that Christ commanded of His disciples for their good, connecting us in communion with each other, with His Heart, and with His creation. Mental Health and Medical Access show how He calls us to use our gifts on His behalf to build up His Kingdom and share love and support while carrying our crosses. The challenge, however, is that the program is implemented in schools and community centers throughout the country in different ways, some of which wouldn’t match our mission, and so it is critical to us to roll this out slowly and carefully to ensure a consistent message that helps take our school deeper into the heart of Jesus.

Our SOS Team at SJA is comprised of twelve staff members and roughly 60 students from all four grade levels who were nominated by our staff and are representative of a diverse array of interests and social groups. This group will meet regularly during Thunder Block to plan messaging campaigns related to the eight strengths throughout the school year to be implemented during announcements, lunches, and C-Day House time (no instructional time will be needed for this program). The team will also be eyes and ears throughout the community to help bring messages of help and hope to all of our students and be a connector to help for those they come in contact with who may be hurting or in crisis.

SOS will help us continue practicing telling stories of strength and hope, stories of the power of God at work in our lives through Scripture and sacraments, friends and family, service and being served. We will continue to help our teens see that they are not alone when they struggle, that there are always supports around them, and that this life is a beautiful one even if it is not always easy to see it as such.

The opening line of our catechism says, “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in Himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in His own blessed life” (CCC 1). This is the God we meet in the Incarnate Word: a blessing that has made us for blessing, a Father with a plan of goodness for our lives, a brother to walk into that plan with, and a Spirit that moves to bind us to each other and to Himself. What a strength we have in Him.

We are so excited to roll out this program, and more information will be shared over the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, feel free to reach out to me with questions or ask your students on C-Days next semester about the conversations happening at school surrounding SOS.
“I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13).

Your brother in Christ,