By MAGGIE MENDERSKI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
HANNIBAL, Mo. — Jennifer Fohey watched an elementary school student sketch a picture of a student hanging himself.
That's the kind of attitude Fohey is hoping to change.
The Hannibal High School junior knows elementary school students face harsher environments than she did in her younger years. She believes children are exposed to violence and cyberbullying earlier than ever before.
The Hannibal High School Transformers program allows Fohey and 29 other high school student to go into elementary school classrooms and try to be a positive, caring influence on the generation that will follow them through the Hannibal Public Schools.
"They need to know that an older person cares about them," Fohey said. "Usually they think that high school kids are too big and bad for them."
The Transformers initiative is a spinoff of the Girl Scouts of America's Project Anti-Violence Education, known as the PAVE the Way program. Girl Scout officials in St. Louis approached Stephanie Ross, a Hannibal High School counselor who sponsors the program, and Hannibal High School Principal Ted Sampson with the concept earlier this year. PAVE the Way tries to teach the skills and strategies children need to reduce their chances of resorting to violence or becoming a victim of violence.
"This program doesn't have a specific limitation on who, what, when, where and how," Ross said. "Any curriculum, any child and any background can benefit, and that's what's neat about it."
Girl Scout councils design their programming around Internet safety, bullying prevention and intervention, gang prevention, and crime prevention. Locally, the George H. Riedel Private Foundation has contributed a grant to help the district offset the cost of materials and transportation.
The high school paired up with Eugene Field Elementary School for the first three Transformers sessions and then took the program to Mark Twain Elementary School in late March.
The program begins with a kindness and respect agreement. The students are taught simple rules, such as allowing everyone to speak, valuing everyone's opinion, and not using names when telling stories. Children are also taught the difference between tattling and reporting a problem to an adult.
Rachel Rawlings, a junior member of the Transformers team, was surprised that the elementary students listened to her as well as they did. She said the teachers at Field helped demonstrate how the program was supposed to work.
"I was just amazed at how much the little kids actually retained my presentation," Rachel said. "I didn't figure they'd get much out of it, but they really did, and that was really good to me."
Eventually Ross hopes to expand the program to each Hannibal elementary school and then beyond the classroom. She wants to invite the elementary school students to sit with the Transformers at a high school football game or walk along with them in the homecoming parade.
Cody Powell, another junior Transformer, said he's already seen an impact. The elementary students have grown to recognize the Transformers in the community and look forward to their appearances at the schools. Powell explained that in a community as tight-knit as Hannibal, it's important to be a role model for the elementary students both on and off campus.
"I hope that we're going to teach these kids that when they go into middle school and high school, to make it a better place than it was when we had it," he said.