This month our Role Model is Mari Siilsalu and we speak with her about how she developed the idea of peer counseling being introduced into schools in Estonia and how she made this into a reality.
Mari Siilsalu, the ENIL coordinator of Estonia, won a prize! Tartu City in Estonia awarded her the Youth of the Year award for 2013 and celebrated her for creating a safer environment in Tartu schools through the development of a peer-counseling system.
Mari realizes through the prize that one can sometimes make a real impact without too much effort. She says “In this case I was just moving around at school every day and saw others having troubles with teasing or saw different kinds of misunderstandings between students and teachers. I realized I could help them because of my experience of having been through similar problems as a student, and especially with my experience of having severe mobility impairment. Later through the Estonian Independent Living movement I became aware that this kind of support is called peer- counseling and it is an advocacy method in the grown – up world. So why not bring it to the teenager world!”
Making peer-counseling available for different target groups is an important step in the implementation of the rights of disabled people. In some cases personal experience is the strongest tool for a counselor in the empowerment process for someone to fight for their rights and understand the real need of making community life accessible for everyone.
Mari started to develop the idea in her head. “From the very beginning, it has been changing a lot and growing bigger and wider as people working with it gathered more experience. I started it in my own school trying to serve all students all by myself without any training or access to supervision. I could feel the need for it to move forward.” Today, two years later in Tartu, there are seven support students working in different schools supervised by students with special training. This is not the end of the journey, but the method has developed so that this work was officially celebrated!
As an initiator of the idea of bringing peer-counseling to the schools Mari wants to thank everyone who has been working to make peer-counseling a reality. She knows achievements like this are not possible without a team. She thanks all for believing in something new and strange and gives special thanks to Gäro-Ly Arro, who took over the coordination work for the support student system in Tartu. She finds no greater pleasure than seeing her idea living its own life and staying alive without her having to hold on to it!