DEWITT — As a group of 10- to 14-year-olds gathered around a table in a room at the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Office in DeWitt, they began to praise one another.
Whether someone was wearing a sweatshirt another person liked or had a nice smile, each one shyly – yet genuinely – said something he or she admired about someone else.
It’s an icebreaker exercise Clinton County 4-H Program Manager Brianne Johnson calls “Round of Compliments.”
It’s an exercise she believes helps young people show their feelings, something that isn't easy for everyone. And it’s how they started each session of the recent Strengthening Families Program in DeWitt.
The six-week program was offered free to students in fifth through eighth grades, and their families, in February and March.
Johnson explained the program requires parents and guardians and their children to get together, face to face, as a family unit to focus on understanding and learning about each other.
Parents gain skills in communication and setting limits, while showing their children they love them. Youths learn about goal setting, how to deal with stress and how to handle peer pressure.
“It is important that families are able to be open and honest with one another, especially during the early teen years, so that good behavior is encouraged when teens encounter peer pressure,” Johnson said.
“The overall outcome that we strive for as educators is that the family unit becomes stronger – being able to utilize what they learned during the sessions to develop common goals and family values that result in more open communication which, in return, can help youth be resilient.”
Six families, including eight young people, took advantage of the opportunity to learn to use love when setting limits, making house rules, having goals and dreams, dealing with stress, building family communication, handling peer pressure, using community resources and protecting against substance abuse.
For the first hour of each session, kids were joined by two staff members in one room while parents were with two other facilitators in another room, Then, everyone joined together as a family for the remaining hour.
Younger children were provided free childcare by 4-H members of the Clinton County 4-H Youth Leadership Council, including Allyse Marx, Gabriel Wall, Ciera Krogman and Luke Friedman.
According to the World Health Organization, Strengthening Families is the No. 1 prevention program out of 6,000 programs analyzed for long-term effects of substance use and misuse.
It addresses risk factors including aggressive or withdrawn behavior, negative peer influence, poor school performance and poor relationships with parents.
It also addresses protective factors such as peer pressure resistance skills, pro-social peer relationships, empathy with parents and positive management of emotions.
Youngsters in the program said the class is something they would do again, and encourage their peers to take part in the future.
“I learned a lot about things that could happen in the future, and how to prepare for them,” noted 12-year-old Max Burgmeier of DeWitt. “One of the things I learned about my dad is that he wants us to stay close as a family, even though we have busy schedules. [This program] helps people strengthen their families and bring them closer together. That’s really important.”
Fellow participant Ana Henningsen of Grand Mound, 11, said she is taking away valuable tools to make better life choices.
“If you or someone you know finds themselves in a bad situation, this can help them figure out how to get out of it,” she related.
Henningsen’s mother, Angela Henningsen, believed the program brought to light how to positively navigate what often can be tricky territory when it comes to raising a child approaching her teen years.
“You learn how to talk to your child,” Angela noted. “You have to set boundaries, but you also have to be able to express your love for them … this program really helped establish how you can do that.”
Jason and Angie Hill of DeWitt, who completed the program with their sons, Benson and Luke, said it reinforced the value of families connecting and investing their time in each other.
“Just the importance of communication,” Jason said. “Whether it’s about things they’re struggling with, or their dreams.”
“It’s a wonderful program,” Angie added. “I can’t recommend it enough. It’s so great to take time to focus on the most important thing – family.”
At each session, families were served a meal, which was donated in-kind by local volunteers and businesses including Happy Joe’s, Gwen Demming with Community Partnerships for Protecting Children, 4-H Club volunteers Rodney Bratthauer and Wayne Grantz, Central DeWitt Family and Consumer Science teacher Val Betz and her students, Jim Devine with Subway and the DeWitt Noon Lions.
Incentives also were offered to families each session and were provided by Clinton County Farm Bureau, CPPC, DeWitt Noon Lions, the DeWitt Fitness Center, and ISU Clinton County Extension and Outreach.