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Milling about the cafeteria, early in the morning at Camp Manitoqua, Frankfort, are two Oak Park and River Forest High School sophomores, Stefan De La Cotera and Chris Lee, hovering by the breakfast buffet station on day two of the three-day District 200-sponsored retreat known as Operation Snowball.
The second weekend in March, about 220 peers, parent volunteers, teachers, counselors and therapists were on board for this year's teen-helping-teen prevention program.
So far, De La Cotera and Lee have attended several large- and small-group sessions, geared toward helping them build new skill sets for leadership development and their own lives.
"We thought this would be fun — you know, a retreat from high school life, getting away from all the homework, the stress, and it would be a good time to have fun," De La Cotera said. "Chris actually told me about this a day before the application was due. I had heard about it as a freshman but just didn't do it."
They want to figure out what to say in tight social situations, like: "If your friends want to drink, you do feel the pressure that you need to do it because if you don't you could lose those friends," De La Cotera said.
Lee added that peer pressure is like when "a group of friends are in a back alley, and one of them pulls out a joint and rolls it up and lights it. Well, I mean, are all those other friends going to just like leave? Probably some of them will take a hit and then leave. You know, to fit in."
Because of the personal storytelling in their small-group sessions, both are beginning to understand that there are many ways to make positive choices in situations like that.
"Everyone in Snowball will get closer but never as close as a small group will," Lee said. "I really like that about this."
Laughing and joking at the next table are eight boys, ranging from freshmen through seniors — new friends who began as cabin mates and stayed up most of the night talking.
"In my freshman year, one of my teachers kept annoying me [about attending], so I finally went and afterward I realized that Snowball is really fun because once you come out of this weekend, you feel like Snowball is your second family," said OPRF senior Marshall Davidson, a four-timer.
Everyone has issues
Over 20 years ago, a chapter formed at OPRF and this program began (Operation Snowball Inc. got its start in Rockford in 1977).
Five years ago, as it was beginning to peter out, OPRF gym teacher James Geovanes stepped in to change things up.
"I got 65 participants that year," Geovanes recalled. "No budget. No help from the high school. It was completely funded by participant fees."
In 2010, special education teacher Andrea Neuman joined him, and it started taking off.
"Andrea and I have tripled the number of participants this year and are taking care of the accountability piece by personally scavenging every nook and cranny to find every adult volunteer we can to come with us," said Geovanes, who attended Snowball in his youth, and has become one of its champions.
Helping them make the fee-based program accessible to every teen, regardless of circumstances, has been Oak Park Township, which came on board to provide critical funds, Geovanes said.
"The idea that this is a weekend where kids go away and cry is such a stereotype, and we have worked endlessly to change that perception," Neuman said. "You don't have to have a prerequisite 'problem' to come to Snowball. It's just about getting kids involved because when you are a teenager, everyone has issues."
Teens helping teens
Alexandra Riseman, an OPRF senior, attended the retreat last year. At the end of it, she knew she wanted to return this year as a teen leader.
"In my junior year, my grandfather had two kinds of cancers, and he was going way downhill. It was stressful for the entire family," she recalled. "I also have clinical depression, and when Grandpa got worse, that was a real trigger."
It was her gym teacher, Mr. G, who convinced Riseman to go. He knew Snowball could help her navigate through a rough time.
"I want to be someone these people can talk to, and if they see me at school, they can say like 'hey' … because I was there for them," said Riseman, the student manager of the girls softball team.
Similarly, OPRF senior Vince Burton was recommended to become a leader last year, by two different female Snowball leaders. The requisite to begin the process, he said, is having attended a previous Snowball.
After filling out an application form, he was interviewed by Geovanes and underwent a rigorous once a week group facilitator training, which ran from September through the weekend of the retreat.
"Yeah, I'm gay and out now, but two years ago, I was in a really bad place," said Burton, who is planning a career in social work. "When I attended Snowball as a freshman, I didn't know anybody, and I still had a great experience. This is my first year being a leader, and I just want to give them the experience I had, in hopes that these freshman will come back next year, and the year after that, and the year after that."
Some girls, of course, just want to have fun — like OPRF sophomore Colette DeGrazia and freshman Julia Krause. Both were looking forward to kicking back, clearing their heads and taking away a few approaches to dealing with the merry-go-round of emotions caused by girl cliques.
"You know when people are talking about you … when they are whispering and kind of looking at you," says Krause. "I think this will help with that. Yeah, in high school I have met a lot of friends. Sports helps. And the Snowball weekend is a really great place to meet people. It is helping me to come out of my shell, and yeah, I have only been here one day, and have made a lot more friends."