The time: spring of 2018. The setting: DiAnne M. Pellerin Center, an alternative high school in Clinton Township. The scene: students have just declared victory over more than 60 other schools in a state-wide contest.
Let’s rewind a bit.
It’s a few years earlier, and Ryan Barck, teacher at the Pellerin Center, has noticed a pattern of depression, drug use, and poor grades and attendance among his students. He also sees no real “escape” for students to discuss these problems with their peers.
Because students are transferred to Pellerin from traditional high schools, they sometimes feel displaced, like the school is not their own. The few extracurricular activities offered are designed for natural-born leaders, leaving at-risk students, and those with untapped leadership potential, with few outlets to feel connected to their school.
Enter the Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) Club, intended to empower teenagers to make and promote positive choices. Barck formed the Pellerin chapter in 2016, but it really hit its stride in December of 2017 when they joined the Strive 4 A Safer Drive (S4SD) contest. Students titled their campaign “Focus, Drive, and Stay Alive” and planned and executed activities throughout the year, with a goal of raising awareness about impaired driving. By far the most popular was a simulator that let students experience first-hand the effects of drug and alcohol on driving ability. Their efforts earn them third place, beating out much larger schools like Dakota and Lake Orion.
Now we’re caught up, but there’s much more this story than just a successful campaign. When the third place verdict came in, interest in joining SADD rose to an all-time high. By the end of the school year, the club had gotten so popular that they had to limit membership. Students are proud of their school, and they want to take part in improving it. For a small, alternative high school to come out on top of so many large, traditional schools became a huge point of pride for the entire student body.
“It’s something they never thought they would have the opportunity to have here,” Barck explained.
Club members are also more mindful of the decisions they make as a result of being involved with SADD. After taking part in the simulator experience, Mondale Smiley said to himself,
“I don’t ever want to get this drunk.”
Brandi Martos takes care of anything her friends need done on their phones so they aren’t tempted to reach for them while driving. Ciara Agrusa advises her friends to drive carefully, abide by speed limits, and put their phones away.
Most importantly, the students in SADD have now found their place in a group of like-minded friends who constantly remind each other of the importance of positive behavior.
“It’s a good environment to be around,” Agrusa reflected. “We’re like a family here.”
Barck has also seen first-hand the influence that the club has had on the at-risk students he set out to help. Students who abused drugs or alcohol in the past are no longer doing so, academic performance is improving and attendance is on the upswing.
The students don’t plan to slow down any time soon. They want to engage in community service at nursing homes and speak to younger students about starting off on the right path. They plan to compete in S4SD again — “we’re going for first next time!” exclaimed Smiley — and continue spreading awareness about safe driving.
The SADD Club has given students more than just an award. Students have built a community and a safe space to just feel normal, Barck explained.
“Now they have something that makes them want to come back. They feel wanted, they feel needed, they have a purpose.”
The DiAnne M. Pellerin Center is located in Clinton Township.