Listen up

Look who’s talking! Kids turn to Kiwanis volunteers to chat about life.

By Elaine O’Donnell • Kiwanis Club of Southport-Oak Island

Everyone wants to be heard. We humans are social creatures, and we all want to be appreciated and understood. So how do you and I help make the children we serve feel appreciated and understood? We can start by actively listening to them.

“Active listening is about being fully present to someone else,” explains retired counselor Marie O’Rourke. “We must concentrate on what the speaker is saying and let that person know we’re fully present.” 

This type of listening, along with a question/response dialogue, results in the ultimate goal: authentic communication. 

Dr. Mable Barth coined the concept of active listening in Denver, Colorado, in 1979, when she realized there was no place for college students to “sound off” without the conversation becoming a matter of school record. 

What Barth started at a portable table on one campus in Denver, she soon instituted at the high school level as well, dubbing it “The Listening Post.” 

After a rash of student suicides across the U.S. in the 1980s, Listening Posts began appearing in elementary and high schools as well. In 1989, The Listening Post was incorporated as a nonprofit organization. Although it’s no longer organized as such, its legacy remains active through Kiwanis clubs — particularly in Southport-Oak Island, North Carolina.

In February 2006, Kiwanian John Kelso found a way to put his effective-listening training as an FBI hostage negotiator into action for kids. Kelso was president of his local club that year when he read a Kiwanis magazine article, “Students find place to express feelings.” 

Learning about the ways Barth was spreading effective listening all over the country, Kelso saw the Listening Post as consistent with his club’s mission. He ran it by his club’s directors, and they agreed. 

He then called Barth directly and set up a training session by speaker phone — with Barth on one end and six local volunteers on his end. During that meeting, Kelso remembers, one statement Barth made about The Listening Post’s ultimate purpose stuck with him. 

“When kids talk to us adults,” she said, “whether parents, teachers or rabbis, we can get accusatory and judgmental. When teens are looking for help, they need listeners, not advisors.” 

Kelso and crew implemented The Listening Post program after gaining permission from administrators at South Brunswick Middle School (SBMS) in Boiling Spring Lakes, North Carolina. 

“Since the beginning, we have tried to help teens work through issues on their own,” Kelso says. “The concept of allowing students to talk with an adult about anything on their minds, without fear of judgment, really took off.” 

Now in its 12th year at SBMS, The Listening Post still uses Barth’s basic set-up during lunch periods: a cloth-covered table, a sign explaining the program and some treats to draw students in.

After a 40-year career as a teacher, Charlie Joyce enjoys giving time during his retirement to The Listening Post at SBMS. 

“These days, kids don’t get much time to just talk with their parents,” he says. “So we supplement that face-to-face time here in the lunch room.” 

American families get just 37 minutes of quality time together per average weekday, according to a 2018 study of 2,000 parents with school-aged children. 

Marie O’Rourke, the retired counselor, says that children in a chaotic and hectic environment may feel that they are not important and that nobody cares how they feel or what they think. 

“As a result, they may keep their worries and fears to themselves,” O’Rourke says. “This often results in depression and anxiety that can affect their ability to learn and develop good relationships.”

Herein lies the beauty of The Listening Post. Simply by listening actively, an adult gives the child a sense of importance, safety and understanding. 

This is why Kelso felt that ah-ha moment when he read about The Listening Post originally. 

“In my estimation,” he says, “the program helps kids grow emotionally.”

Some minor tweaking was done to the local program under Kelso’s leadership. 

“We added women listeners, so that students would have another gender to share with, if they wanted to,” he says. “We also added a third listener to the table so that we could serve the dozens of students we saw in a lunchtime.”

Kelso passed the leadership torch to Ken Bastedenbeck years ago, but he remains proud of the continuous, attentive lineup of listeners on the adult side of the table. 

“This is why God gave us two ears but only one mouth — so we can listen more.”

Bastedenbeck describes his era of leading The Listening Post in this southeastern North Carolina club as educational for himself. 

“I remember that it was heartwarming to see students writing notes of affirmation and their signatures on the placards we provided,” he says. “But the most surprising thing for me was the amount of one-parent families. We’d get the kids to talk about that. 

“We had a rule that the adults would only listen and let the students say whatever they needed to talk about,” he adds. “That was our purpose.”

Dick Hart agrees. He inherited the helm of The Listening Post program in the Southport-Oak Island area from Bastedenbeck and has led it for the past six years. For Hart, the real secret of a successful Listening Post program is simple. 

“Just listen and show an interest in our youth,” he says. That’s it!” 

After the success of the program at SBMS, Hart decided to present the concept at another area school last year. After getting approval at Cedar Grove Middle School, the only hurdle he experienced was getting enough volunteers to meet the increased needs of the students in both schools. 

With two programs up and running, Hart has a unique perspective to share with prospective directors. 

“At various schools, The Listening Post may look very different — and that’s OK,” he says.

At some schools, the table may need to be in the cafeteria, while the stage area might be available at others. Anywhere you put it, a table with a sign and a few chairs is all you need. Add tablecloths, candy dishes and stickers to make the post your own. 

As far as personnel, volunteers sign up for three-hour shifts once a week, to cover all of the lunch periods.

David Ruth, the principal at SBMS, says the Listening Post is one of many ways in which his students have benefited from Kiwanis over the years. 

Thanks to Hart’s diligence and contacts, Ruth says, SBMS students have talked with Kiwanis volunteers, but also with other community members — including government officials, the superintendent of the school district, a school board member, a TV anchor and even a judge.

At Cedar Grove, the second middle school to which Hart took the program, a former firefighter paid a visit as a guest listener this year. 

The school principal, Justin Hayes, pops by too. 

“The Listening Post has been a huge benefit for our students,” he says. “They want people to hear them, to hear their concerns. Mainly, they want not to feel judged when they share their opinions.” 

As Hayes says this, two seventh graders with special needs greet their principal with a fist bump.

If a student directly reveals to a Listening Post volunteer that they need help, volunteers are advised to notify the proper staff in the school, such as a teacher, school resource officer or principal.

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