By Jim Lambert
Three years ago, Sydney Salomon was sitting in her freshman religion class listening to student companions share their personal stories as part of the Imagine Grief Education Program at Union Catholic.
“I remember hearing Devon Mahoney tell her story when she was a senior and I was a freshman,'' said Salomon, a senior who lives in Linden. "Seeing her come up in front of all of us to speak gave me the confidence to ask more about the program,’’
Salomon was so inspired by the experience that she decided she wanted to help other students, so she became a student companion.
On Monday, Union Catholic began its Imagine Grief Education presentations, which will run through Thursday at the school.
In addition to Salomon, the Union Catholic student companions are Anna Rosenzweig, Jacob Jusma, Korantema Cofie, Calah McCombs, Meaghan Mulvanerty, Sean Machado, Michael Robateau, Christopher Robateau, Alyse Moss, Kiara Renteria, Myaya Morton, Rebecca Penevolpe, Julie Emmons, and Adrienne Caceda.
The student companion educators at Union Catholic are Sean Machado, Yilin Chai, Aiyana Williams, and Dylan France.
Union Catholic has partnered with Imagine, A Center for Coping with Loss in Mountainside, on the Grief Education Program. The program held a #Here4u Companion Training session with Mrs. Connie Palmer from Imagine earlier this month to prepare students for their presentations and their role as companions.
Mrs. Palmer, the Clinical Training Director at Imagine, began the thought-provoking presentations in religion classes before the student companions courageously shared their personal stories of grief and resiliency.
Mrs. Palmer explained the different forms of grief, which ranged from death, divorce, adoption, and sports injuries, and spoke about how to deal with grief, how to talk to someone who is grieving, and how to help yourself and others throughout the grieving process.
“We have an overall mission that wherever a grieving child turns there is someone there to support them,’’ said Mrs. Palmer. "We go into schools because kids who are going through loss have friends who don’t know how to support them. It turns out that it’s something you can learn how to do and this program shows you how do do that. The whole point of this program is the students are the ones who have the power to stand up and tell everyone their story, and it empowers the students who are listening to share their feelings of grief and understand that they aren’t alone.’’
Mrs. Palmer said Union Catholic’s growth since the inception of the program is very encouraging and stems from the culture that the school has created.
“When we first came to Union Catholic (six years ago) for this program they had two student companions, and now look how many there are,’’ said Mrs. Palmer. “You want the students to feel love, empathy and belonging, and I think Union Catholic does that better than any other school because that’s the culture that’s been created here.’’
Salomon said it’s very gratifying to know that she’s now helping others.
“I am amazed at all the people that understood what I was going through and related to what I was saying when I was speaking,’’ said Salomon. “There are people you don’t even know who you are reaching and you are making a positive change in their life, and that feels good.’’
Salomon is grateful to Union Catholic for beginning the Grief Education Program.
“I’m so happy that Union Catholic has this program,’’ said Salomon, who serves as a Student Ambassador, competed on the UC gymnastics team, and is a member of the Student Advisory Club. “I don’t think my life would be this happy without it. The fact that this program was put in place so that I can strive and other people can be welcomed into the program is amazing. UC is a place you can truly express yourself. You're not just a number at Union Catholic, you're a name here. They know who you are, know your story, and care about who you are here. And I feel that’s a big reason why Union Catholic stands out from other schools.’’
Mrs. Jennifer Dixon, the Director of School Counseling at Union Catholic, praised UC Principal Sister Percylee Hart for supporting the #Here4U program, and the UC student companions for sharing their stories.
"I am continuously grateful to Sister Percylee for supporting the Imagine #Here4U initiative,'' said Mrs. Dixon. "I am in awe of the companions and their ability to be vulnerable by speaking so candidly in front of their peers in hopes of helping others. It is truly inspiring and is a testament to the supportive community here at UC. I have witnessed first-hand the life changing impact this program has had on the students and look forward to the continued growth of the program. Each year new students join the returning companions which has made the program sustainable and has helped it flourish. Currently approximately 20 students serve as companions through the program.’’
Any student who is interested in becoming a companion through the "#Here4U program" or who would benefit from the support of speaking with a student companion should contact Mrs. Dixon.