MAPLE PARK – Gathering around a table in a conference room at Kaneland High School, a dozen students from a group known as PODA – Prevention of Dangerous Actions – brought up ideas about an upcoming bully-themed presentation at Kaneland Harter Middle School.
One member, sophomore Andriy McFarlin, said a strong message would deliver a lasting impression. He said he heard it loud and clear when he was a middle school student watching such an event put on by the group.
“I didn’t know what PODA was until you guys came in and spoke,” he said.
Kaneland’s PODA group has built a reputation as an inclusive, difference-making organization that can help guide students through such issues as bullying, drugs and drinking. The group was active in the recent Kindness in Kaneland Week, handing out tickets with Starburst candy taped on them to reward random acts of kindness.
Anna Lamica, a counselor at Kaneland, has been the sponsor of PODA for its entire 16-year existence. She said students are attracted to the group for several reasons. They might have participated in some of the dangerous behaviors, such as drinking or drugs, and are aiming to help keep others from participating in such a lifestyle. Some just might not fit in elsewhere, she said, but they can find acceptance in PODA. Many in the group have been a victim of bullying, she said.
She said when she launched the group, she was looking to find the right people to drive home the message.
“I can talk all day, and they’re not going to listen,” she said, explaining that youths relate better when the message comes from a peer. “I pretty much just said I was looking for a few kids who want to make a difference in the school.”
And every year, she said, those students will make their way to PODA. The current PODA president, junior Paige Gilson, said the group is “one of the best clubs in the school. We do so much.”
“PODA is a very special group,” she said. “It’s not a common club. You have anti-bullying groups, but we are working on other topics, too. … We have a great reputation at our school. I love the people I work with.”
At the meeting, the group talked about goals, what its members were planning to do during the upcoming weekend and how to approach future bullying presentations for middle-schoolers. The ultimate message is inclusion.
“We don’t like to leave anyone out,” said Angie Franks, a senior and PODA vice president.
She said the organization draws members from a variety of groups at the school.
“We have kids in AP classes,” she said. “We have kids who, if you stereotype, would be considered goth. We have everybody. We like it when everybody voices their opinions.”
She said many in PODA have experienced the dangers of high school from several angles. For instance, she said she had been both a bully and a victim of bullying. And, she said, while it can be difficult to get through such things in middle school, “You can get lost in high school.”
She said she could be a bit of a problem in middle school.
“My mom said she didn’t know what to do with me anymore,” she said, but then, “something just clicked in my head.”
She said sharing her experience can make a big difference with other students.
“I believe if you’ve gone through the same thing as someone else, they can relate to you … it even helps if you had a worse problem or the same problem,” she said. “They can see you’ve been through so much.”
Because of the reputation of the group, Gilson said students will come to members for help.
“I think every year, we get many more kids,” she said. “They all have a story to tell, and every story needs to be heard. … We want to hear about it, and we want to help them.”