Many Ceres students hit a rough time in life. Coming alongside them for moral support and encouragement are a small group of school chaplains like Jim Groft, a 71-year-old Turlock man of faith. He started up the School Resource Chaplain program within the Ceres Unified School District to help students get back on track.
Groft is one of three Christians who volunteer their time just listening and providing support to students who need positive direction. Groft spends two to four hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at Blaker Kinser Junior High School offering counseling to students who are referred to him by the assistant principal or a counselor or teacher.
"I started out this year with three potentially suicidal students," said Groft. "That's not typical but that's what I did."
One student whom he sees on a regular basis is a boy who has problems controlling his temper at home and school. Since being available to the boy, his overall grade point average has risen to 3.52.
"We do counseling with students who are having problems at home for various reasons," said Groft. "Sometimes the students just need somebody to be able to sit and listen in confidentiality and so we do a lot of that as well."
According to Groft, School Resource chaplains are trained 40 hours to deal with problems such as gangs and abuse. Students are assured confidentiality unless the chaplain is made aware of abuse and is legally required to report it to authorities. Chaplains are also mandates to report cases where students announce they plan to harm themselves or others.
"We train them first of all to learn how to listen correctly," said Groft.
He explained that good listeners don't come with preconceived ideas nor quick responses.
"You're listening to find out, alright, what is it that's really troubling them, what kinds of things. I spend, I would say, two-thirds of my time listening to the student, especially in the beginning when I'm getting to know them."
Chaplains Tony and Judy Esping of Ceres work at Ceres High School and Central Valley High School. Since January the couple has invested time in turning around students who have been absent in school and referred through the School Attendance Review Board (SARB).
"It's exciting to see how they've been working and some of the successes they've already had," commented Groft.
At times the chaplain does get frustrated at the lack of progress but Groft estimated that 80 percent of his students have turned things around.
Groft started the Ceres school program three years ago after deciding he wanted to do something positive in his retirement years following 30 years in education. He prayed with his wife and asked God where to serve "and He said I want you to go back into education, which you know so well, and I want you to start a School Resource Chaplain program. And so that's what I did."
He said the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Lemon v. Kurtzman, allows chaplains to operate in a public school or the military. The program involves mostly Christian chaplains but does not exclude those of other faiths.
CUSD Assistant Superintendent Jay Simmonds said Groft, wants to see the CUSD chaplain program expand.
"He said if I could come up with eight chaplains he would be able to place them right now," said Groft. He said counselors don't have enough time to give lots of time to students.
Training sessions are being planned for those who wish to become a chaplain. Typically chaplains are people of faith but all must undergo a police department background check and a free LiveScan process is covered by CUSD.