HASTINGS, Minn. -- A group of Hastings students are on a mission to make their school stronger in a year following several school tragedies.

Hastings High School lost a classmate in a car accident and two others to suicide last year.

In a time of healing, school leaders wanted students to realize they don't have to face challenges alone.

Nearly two dozen students ranging from freshman to seniors started the school's new Peer Helper program this weekend. The organization kicked off at St. Croix Camp in Hudson, Wis. on Sunday.

"We got really motivated because we felt like kids needed someone else to talk to other than counselors, someone they can relate to a little more," said Rachel Bruch-Anderson, a Hastings High School senior.

School counselors selected students based on their ability to listen, lead and help others.

"Studies show that students turn to their friends 90 percent of the time when they need someone to talk to, and we knew there was a support network already happening. What the peer helper program can do is train that core network," said Hastings High School Counselor Kim Hoff.

"We had a tough year, and we are hoping to come back from that with some knowledge and additional support for our students and just to really build that school climate," she said.

Peer helpers underwent training and gained counseling skills to help with the challenges that face many teens. The issues are ranging from grief, relationships, depression, abuse, eating disorders and suicide as well as everyday struggles from schoolwork to college searches.

"I just really hope we can change their lives," said Jake Kelly, a Hastings High School senior. "There will always be hardships, whether it is small or big, but we will overcome that with this new program and just caring for other people."

Mike Kaul, a Stillwater teacher, provided training from the Hazelden peer helper and peer empowerment program. He said many of the students are already seen as helpers in their school, who aspire to serve others, whether in the medical or educational fields.

Kaul demonstrated the importance of their new roles by pairing students off and tangling them together with a piece of string. He challenged them to work together to find their way out, and eventually, they did.

"Did we talk a lot about helping people who are stuck? Sometimes things are going to get a little tied up in knots - don't be afraid to ask for help," said Kaul. "You can go to anyone in this group and ask for help and they would be here for you. That is what you are going to offer to students at Hastings High School."

If you are interested in a peer helper program, email Kaul at or visit Hazelden's webpage detailing the empowerment curriculum.