Left to right, mentors Ashley Stevens and Ken Walker, social workers Alanna Hollingsworth and Amber Nickerson and mentor Jarvis Smith in a classroom at Airport High School (Photo courtesy of Amber Nickerson)

Three accomplished adults sit at the front of a classroom as dozens of high schoolers file in. 

A teenage voice says, “I’m grateful to be here making myself a better person.” 

Once a month for an hour and a half, Airport High School hosts Real Talk, a mentoring program that began two years ago.

The school wanted to create a safe space for students to talk with adults – trusted community members and school social workers – about their struggles, according to Amber Nickerson, the social worker at the school who started the program.

It’s working. Once quiet, reserved students are now meeting with guidance counselors. Students uninterested in college are now applying.

The students have built trusting relationships with the adults and each other, mentor Ashlei Stevens said. Any student is welcome to come. Good grades, attendance and disciplinary reports are required to join. 

The group eats lunch together and chats first, then they split into groups – girls and boys.

“We’ve had some really intense sessions where they’ve really opened up,” Stevens said. “It’s interesting to hear what’s happening in the minds of today’s teenagers.”

The mentors focus on life skills, public image, peer pressure, self awareness, anger management, healthy relationships and how to communicate effectively and respectfully.

Not once has there been a breach of confidentiality, according to Stevens. The students take it very seriously.

The mentors remind the students to reach out to school counselors and social workers for additional support and resources outside of their monthly meetings.

The program also takes students on college tours, most recently to North Carolina A&T. Next up? Clemson University.

If Real Talk requires any financial support, Principal Matt Schilit personally covers it. But “they don’t ask for much,” Schilit said, primarily just donations for food.

Lexington School District Two decided to put a social worker in each school in the district two years ago. Before, there was only one for the entire district.

The district “realized a need to prioritize mental health support in today’s day and age,” said Dawn Kujawa, Lexington Two’s public information officer.

Real Talk followed soon after.

The social workers meet twice a month to exchange observed trends, new ideas and ask and offer help to one another.

Real Talk later was expanded to Airport High’s feeder middle school, Fulmer Middle. The middle schoolers program looks slightly different but has the same purpose: to get students talking.

Both Airport and Fulmer have diverse student demographics, according to Nickerson and Layla Sewell, Fulmer Middle’s social worker.

The schools’ staffs are less diverse, so “it’s really good for (the students) to see representation on campus,” Sewell said.

All three mentors are African-American professionals, both male and female, who live and work in the Columbia area.

“Our mentors are unique in their backgrounds, their life experiences, and what drives their passion to give back to their communities,” Nickerson said. “Those unique qualities and (their) passion for helping the next generation are ultimately what has made them such wonderful additions to the program.”