KINGSBURG — To help guide students as they make life decisions and step into adulthood, a group of volunteers are continuing to mentor students through the Ambassadors of Compassion program.

Local AOC Director Grant Thiessen met with a few dozen students at the Kingsburg High Library on Aug. 30 to enroll more students in the program as this school year gets under way.

"It got to my heart about bringing this to our local communities,” she said about hearing AOC Founder David Hannah talk about the mentoring program’s goals while in San Diego.

“It was mostly in big cities, so we were their pilot version,” Hannah said of bringing AOC to a more rural community.“It started building momentum with other community leaders that wanted to be of service and who were involved with students. Then, it just took off. Last year, it was really successful. We did a few sports team, the football team and cheer squads and volleyball team.”

AOC started just over two years ago in the district and currently, students at Rafer Johnson Junior High and Oasis High are also involved.

“Altogether between the three campuses, we had 350 students with about 35 adult volunteers," Thiessen said. "It focuses on responsibility, taking the initiative, service, expectations, labor, influence, experiences and forgiveness. They’d meet on campus, or some would go to The Landing for about an hour a week."

The way it works is students are teamed up in small groups with an adult volunteer. They’ll meet from 8:15-9:15 a.m. Monday mornings to watch topic-specific videos, write in their personal journals and then share their own experiences.

“The ladies meet with six to seven girls and the men with the guys. They’d walk through these life principles of resiliency and awareness and preparation," she said. "It’s all the stuff you don’t learn in academics but you need when you get into life."

While the adult AOC coaches are not teachers or educators, Thiessen said they are community members who act as life coaches with a goal of instilling a sense of service in the students.

“The leader is really there to promote them to lead their own group. Every group develops a service project at the end of the semester," she said. "Last year, we had 20 groups of kids with leaders out in our community working on projects, whether it was at KCAPS or painting something at the school or cleaning up or the dog rescue, or the horse whisperer. It’s just a really neat thing.”

The journals students use each semester have action plans and are private.

“They answer the questions from their own life perspective," Thiessen said. "The next week, they come back and we talk about the answers to the questions. It gets the conversation going and it’s all about group discussion."

Although the idea of setting life goals and know what steps to take to achieve them may seem like common sense to adults, Thiessen said many teens find it a challenge to open up and have these deeper conversations.

“A lot of them have a hard time with communication and basic principles of dialogue like me looking at you and just talking," she said. "Everything is text, Instagram or Snapchat, so it helps them to just have a conversation and learn how to approach adverse situations without just flipping out.”

At an introductory meeting at the KHS library, students snacked on pizza and filled out enrollment forms. Some were brand new while some had already gone through the program at Rafer Johnson and wanted to experience it again. Others had gone through the program in their health class as freshmen but saw the value of repeating it for more experience.

The junior high program is RISE, which stands for responsibility, initiative, service and expectations. The high school version is LIFE, or labor, influence, forgiveness and experiences.

Sophomore Kirandeep Klair had already taken the course during her health class and liked how it helped her get to know her classmates on a deeper level. She’d brought friends Ahleena Coolidge and Sarah Pungs to sign up that day.

“It was a great way for me to learn about other people and not just be caught up in my own life on the little things," she said. "I was able to connect and help others. The thing that stood out for me was learning how to forgive others. For me, it’s always been hard to forgive others and not hold on to the past.”

Pungs said she wanted to sign up so she could learn how to start setting life goals.

“It will help me with other important things in life, not just superficial stuff so you can focus on what you really want,” she said.

Freshman Elijah Gomez had attended the RISE program at Rafer and recalls talking about learning how to set life goals and accomplish them. He admits that talking about the big topics in life isn’t always easy so the program helps students open up.

“We talked about how you have to be focused and had to be productive and know what you’re doing so in the future, it’s easier,” he said.

Volunteer Ambassador Coleman Diffenderfer said he likes how the program guides students as they set their own life goals, learn the skill of forgiveness and weigh important life choices.

“They get to self-identify some things in their life, such as goals that they have and areas where they can improve as leaders and as citizens," he said. "We also use personal awareness training and interpersonal skill training where they evaluate relationships in their life. They look at positive and negative influences in their life and then evaluate if these are making them better to help them reach goals or holding them back.”

Diffenderfer said he got involved because he prefers guiding students as they mature into adulthood rather than letting them figure life out on their own.

“We can look at students in our community, shake our fists and think they’re just troublemakers," he said. "I think most students want to participate in their community in a beneficial way. This gives them tools and resources to do that. This is the next generation and if we don’t invest in them, what’s the future?

"Also, they get to do it together with a group of peers. Within that group, they develop new relationships. It’s a cool opportunity to watch them develop."

The reporter can be reached at 583-2427 or lbrown@selmaenterprise.com.

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