by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Overland Park — When their daughter Madison was a sophomore in high school, Ascension parishioners Lea and Bob Daum noticed a change in her attitude.
The change seemed to coincide with her involvement in a group called REbeL.
Knowing nothing about REbeL, Lea Daum accepted her daughter’s invitation to attend a meeting at her school, Blue Valley Northwest in Overland Park.
There she heard fellow parishioner Dr. Laura Eickman speak, and everything made sense.
“I got what REbeL was,” she said. “And I realized the changes I’d seen in Madison were coming from this group.”
“She was more confident in herself,” said Lea Daum. “She was more accepting of others.
“She made friends with kids for what they were like on the inside, not what they looked like on the outside.”
Madison’s mom was so impressed with the program, she signed up to be a parent volunteer.
Her dad also became an ardent fan.
“I think it’s one of the most positive programs I’ve ever been associated with,” he said.
He’s not alone.
Started just five years ago by Eickman, a licensed clinical psychologist, the REbeL program is now thriving in eight area schools and has been invited into 26 more schools in six states.
What it’s all about
REbeL is a student-driven education and prevention program that helps teenagers by educating them on eating issues, body image problems, self- esteem, bullying, and peer pressure.
And it’s aptly named, because the students who flock to its meetings are rebelling against media stereotypes of beauty, fitness and health.
“They’re starting a revolution in terms of trying to help people be more positive, healthy and self-confident,” said Eickman.
The revolution is spreading fast. In the words of Ascension parishioner Lauren Breithaupt, who assisted in starting the program, “it has just exploded.”
Eickman, whose specialty area is working with eating disorders and body images, developed the program through a combination of her clinical experience and research.
Breithaupt, a former Blue Valley Northwest student who is currently working toward her doctorate in clinical psychology, saw a great need for such a program and was eager to help.
Eickman began her research by conducting a series of focus groups with local high school students, asking what issues they struggle with most.
“It became very clear to me,” she said. “It wasn’t a question of if body image was an issue — it was to what extent.”
Breithaupt wasn’t surprised by the results.
“I would say every single one of my friends struggles with some self-esteem issue related to their image,” she said. “And you notice that in high school a lot.
“It can develop into an eating disorder, which is what we don’t want to see.”
That’s why REbeL is focused on educating students before a poor self-image causes them to risk their health.
And the philosophy behind that education is rooted in Eickman’s faith.
“God gave us these incredible gifts of our bodies and our personalities,” she said. “If we can learn to respect the gifts God gave us, we realize we all do have weaknesses. But we also have amazing strengths and talents.
“And those are what we should focus on.”
Starting a revolution
Many of the students in REbeL’s initial focus group attended Blue Valley Northwest, so Eickman chose that high school to approach with a pilot program.
The pilot was so successful that, within the next few years, a REbeL chapter was started in all five Blue Valley high schools, Notre Dame de Sion High School in Missouri and Olathe East High School.
In addition, a middle school pilot program is currently in Prairie Sun Middle School in Leawood.
Each school has its own chapter, and then the school itself has teachers or school counselors who are sponsors.
“I train [students and sponsors] and I get the whole program started,” explained Eickman. “And then the sponsors of the school interact with the students on a weekly basis.”
Students meet weekly to discuss issues and plan activities, then get the word out to the entire school.
“For instance, to send a very visual and positive message,” said Bob Daum, “they have fat-free week where they’ll go into the schools at night and cover up all the mirrors in the bathrooms.”
The REbeL program provides resources, including meeting topics and discussion questions, as well as a binder of the fliers and handouts created by students.
“It’s a peer-to-peer student organization,” said Bob Daum, “that’s pretty much run by the students.”
Indeed one of the most successful aspects of REbeL is its student-driven format.
“It’s different from any other program because the students talk about what they want to change within their own school,” said Breithaupt.
For this reason, REbeL might look different in each school. Students identify what they think their peers are struggling with — in one school that might be bullying, and in another it might be eating disorders.
“So the kids will talk and they’ll come up with posters or videos or activities they want to try within their schools to address their issues,” said Eickman.
Emily Baranowski, an Ascension parishioner and sophomore REbeL member at Notre Dame de Sion, works hard to make her chapter a success.
“We have Laura and the counselors helping us out,” she said. “But it’s really the students who step up and do it.”
REbeL also has a leadership team comprised of two members from each school.
“I meet with those kids monthly,” said Eickman. “And so they get to interact and hear what the other schools are doing and take those ideas back to their own chapters.”
Like the Daums, many parents are seeing a change in their REbeL teens.
“They get this attitude that they really can make a positive impact on a large group of people,” said Breithaupt. “So we see this theme of empowerment develop.
“And within the school, it creates a culture of kindness.”
Emily’s mother, Kerri Baranowski, said it reminds her of the Bible teaching that we are many parts, but one body.
“I think this program really promotes that,” she said. “Celebrate the part that you are, because your part is important.
“I think when [the students] look at it from that perspective, it helps them see not just the good in themselves, but the good in others, too.”
Her daughter agrees.
“It’s been a good year for REbeL at our school,” she said. “I’ve had girls come up to me as say, ‘We’re so glad for what you’re doing here.’ They’re so grateful.”
It’s no surprise that Eickman is overwhelmed by requests for the program at other schools.
“We would love to be able to say yes to all the requests,” she said. “We hope to be able to add some more for next year.
“But the key really is, as with most things, money. We’re actively trying to raise enough funds to support the nonprofit so we can hire somebody to manage the organization.”
Hope for the future
To that end, students from all participating schools collaborated this winter to host a successful pancake breakfast fundraiser at a local Applebee’s restaurant.
And REbeL members, families and friends are looking forward to the biggest REbeL event of the year — The Walk to REbeL (see sidebar above).
Eickman hopes the walk will raise enough awareness and funds to help her bring REbeL to more schools and empower more teenagers.
“I’ve seen when these kids really start to focus on what makes them a beautiful person,” she said. “They become so much happier and more peaceful, and such great examples of what we can do with our lives.”
Breithaupt has experienced that firsthand.
“Working with REbeL has made me less conscious about my image,” she said. “So I can put more of my time and efforts into something else that’s going to make a difference in someone else’s life.
“And it’s strengthened my faith. I feel like I’m doing something purposeful at all times. I’m doing exactly what I feel I’m called to do.”
Eickman wants that experience for every young person.
“If you use the talents you were given for good,” she said, “you can do such amazing things.”