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January 21, 2020

Sources of Strength Program for Teens Expands to Rural Communities

ThedaCare is further expanding the footprint of SoS throughout the 18-county ThedaCare service area to include the more rural Green Lake, Marquette, Waushara, Waupaca, Shawano, and Menominee counties.

Community members take part in Sources of Strength informational session at Clintonville High School in 2019. ThedaCare is proud to provide funding to help implement SoS in rural communities including in Green Lake, Marquette, Waushara, Waupaca, Shawano, and Menominee counties.

January 21, 2020

ThedaCare Invests in Connection, Hope and Strength

APPLETON, Wis. – Sources of Strength (SoS) was developed in 1998 by Mark LoMurray, a counselor who worked in rural communities and among several Northern Plains tribes in North Dakota. It has blossomed across the nation and around the globe into a highly respected and effective suicide prevention program that also helps teens address interpersonal violence, bullying and substance abuse problems.

SoS is currently implemented in 17 schools throughout the Fox Cities through the NEW Mental Health Connection with plans to expand to all high schools in the Tri-County (Calumet, Outagamie and Winnebago) area. ThedaCare is further expanding the footprint of SoS throughout the 18-county ThedaCare service area to include the more rural Green Lake, Marquette, Waushara, Waupaca, Shawano, and Menominee counties. In the 2019-2020 school year, Montello, Tri-County (Plainfield), Berlin, Shawano and Wild Rose will be first year schools; Clintonville will join this collaborative as a second-year school. School districts commit to three years of training and support with an option for two additional years.

“Rural school districts often have fewer resources,” explained Kara Vanvooren, a local SoS coordinator who works on behalf of ThedaCare to train students and trusted adults in schools. “We see the benefit of the SoS program, not just in an urban school setting, but in the rural communities as well. That’s why implementation in these schools is incredibly important to students in those areas.”

ThedaCare is funding $280,000 over five years to implement SoS in rural communities. The funding will help reduce the training cost to schools by about 75 percent, from $15,000 to $3,875, for the first three years of the program.

According to Tracey Ratzburg, a Community Health Specialist with the ThedaCare Community Health Improvement team, expanding the Sources of Strength program came from ThedaCare’s work to address the opioid crisis in Northeast and Central Wisconsin. One of the identified strategies included the expansion of the SoS model in partnership with school districts in the rural counties of the ThedaCare service area.

“As a health system committed to improving community health, ThedaCare is in a position to lead efforts to address this public health crisis,” said Ratzburg. “As a comprehensive approach to the opioid and drug epidemic, we believe a portion of resources should be directed upstream to help curve the demand for drugs and alcohol in the first place.” 

Vanvooren explained the main tenets of the SoS program are that it’s peer-led and it teaches young people to recognize and nurture their inherent strengths in difficult times.

“We teach young people how to do a self-scan to assess how they are doing,” she said.” The next step is to identify their connectors. Do they need to spend time with positive friends? Would it help to be generous to others, or do something creative, or get some exercise? Do they need medical care or a counselor?”

Each Sources of Strength program involves 10 percent of a school’s student body as peer leaders, all of them nominated by staff. Adult advisors can come from teaching, maintenance, administrative, or food service staff, among other groups.

“We include a diverse group of student leaders and diversity of experience,” said Vanvooren. “We want all students to feel represented by SoS leaders and role models.”

Intense training sessions lead up to the peer leaders and their advisors working with small groups created from the general student population. The small groups commit to meet two hours per month. Called Tier 1 contact, it’s a way to invite every student into the process as both a learner and a support person to his or her peers. As a young person may have needs for more professional help, Tier 2 puts them in touch with a school counselor; Tier 3, a mental health professional.

SoS has been widely lauded for its evidence-based success. The program has engaged in research and evaluation efforts with Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Manitoba, The Black Dog Institute in Australia, amongst others. Over the past decade Sources of Strength has become one of the most rigorously evaluated and researched programs in the world.


“SoS is based on an upstream model, where young people are mentored to prevent problems from spiraling out of control, as opposed to requiring intervention when a crisis is already underway,” said Vanvooren. “We call this a hope-help-strength model, not a sad-shock-trauma model.”

Vanvooren added she is impressed by how the students have become leaders, helping peers through difficult times.

“I am struck by how well kids know what they need,” she said. “They want to connect with their mentors and talk to their friends about the eight strengths we teach. They tell me ‘Our school really needs this. I really need this.’”