While Sandy Austin was a student at Lakewood’s Green Mountain High School, she remembers when a particularly good motivational speaker visited her school.

Earl Reum, who died in 2010 after a career spent inspiring young people, left the students with one essential message. He said many people think that young people only care about themselves. He knew that not to be true. He challenged the students to become B.I.O.N.I.C. people and say ‘Believe It Or Not I Care’ with their lives.

Sandy AustinAustin didn’t know it at the time, but those words would become an integral part of her career.

Austin, 51, now a counselor at her alma mater, was recognized last month by the American School Counselor Association as one of nation’s top 10 school counselors out of 100,000. She met with Colorado’s Congressional delegates, attended a hearing, and was a featured guest at a black tie  gala.

“It’s such a shock and an honor,” Austin said. “It’s a real tribute to my mentors. I’ve had incredible people. I’ve worked with some of the best.”

Tami Shrader, community relations/Race to Read coordinator at Bandimere Speedway, nominated Austin for the award.

“She’s really compassionate and she will listen to the kids,” Shrader said. “She just jumps right in and really does have a heart for it.”

From P.E. teacher to counselor

Austin was also named 2008 Colorado High School Counselor of the Year. Before she became a counselor, she was a P.E. teacher  – but not a “typical one,” she said.

“I was always looking for the struggling students,” Austin said. “I focused on those students and I wanted to give them positive reinforcement.”

As much as Austin loved being a teacher, she had a hip injury and she knew she would need a hip replacement. A new career path was in order. She started to look for counseling jobs.

A year after becoming a counselor at Ranum High School in Denver, she applied for a position at Green Mountain, where she became co-sponsor of a peer mediation program. But a spate of four student suicides in eight months made her painfully aware that more needed to be done to support students.

“I was looking at the issue and I wondered, How did they fall through the cracks? I saw that often it was the kids who were new to our school or students who missed school for many days due to illnesses, health conditions, the loss of a loved one, or a tragedy of some kind (who struggled).”

So, in 2004-2005, Austin spun off Reum’s words from years earlier and created the “Believe It Or Not I Care (B.I.O.N.I.C.)” team, the nation’s first. The goal of her new organization was to give students a chance to reach out to classmates in crisis. The team would help and support classmates who were seriously ill, had experienced a death of a friend or in the family, or struggled with isolation or loneliness.

When B.I.O.N.I.C. was first created, there were two teams – the hospitalization team and the loss team.

Forty students signed up.

“When she started B.I.O.N.I.C, I had thought, ‘How brilliant is that?”’ Shrader said. “By starting this program, kids could be compassionate and were able to fill the missing gap at Green Mountain.”

Support for B.I.O.N.I.C. grows

Over the past six years, the B.I.O.N.I.C. team has grown to include  four  teams with 150 student members.

The new student team sends a “survival kit,” which includes a GMHS pencil, a Snickers bar, a welcome card and an invitation to the new student lunch, to a new student and hosts a new student lunch once a month.

The extended illness team targets students who have missed more than five days of school. They call students at home to check in on them, send a packet to help them make up homework, and, if appropriate, visit the student at home.

The hospitalization team will contact the family to see if they can visit. If they can, they will bring a gift to the student to let them know other Green Mountain students are thinking of them.

The school tragedy team reaches out to other schools or communities that experience different tragedies, such as shootings. Recently, the tragedy team sent a 24-foot banner to Arizona signed by Green Mountain students to let the community there know that they were thinking of them. It was a gesture aimed at supporting the community there in the aftermath of the shooting that killed six and seriously injured U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

B.I.O.N.I.C is also spreading worldwide. She said it’s in about 400 schools, including schools in China, Tanzania, Virgin Islands, Qatar, Barbados and Belize.

Even after students graduate, B.I.O.N.I.C. is a big part of students’ lives and they continue to live the goals, she said. Austin said that young people truly want to make a difference.

“I remember one of my students when she went off to college, a girl on her floor’s family member had passed,” Austin said. “Everyone else left her alone, but my student bought a Snickers bar to give to her. She just said, ‘I am thinking about you in this hard time.’”

Austin challenges her current B.I.O.N.I.C. members to make a difference for someone once a day, encouraging them to do even simple things, such as buy someone a cup of coffee just to make someone’s day better.

Changing role of school counselors

And counselors can use the help. Austin said it’s becoming harder for counselors to reach every child in need. Counselors are tapped to deal with an increasingly complicated set of issues, including family issues that affect students. With budget and program cuts to various mental health resources, counselors are doing more types of counseling that they are not necessarily trained to do.

“There’s more on our plates than ever before,” Austin said.

Austin said parents are vital to the overall well-being of students at school. She urged parents to get to know school counselors and talk to them about how their child is doing.

She said she understands there is more pressure on parents today to make sure their students are successful. She gets a lot of phone calls from parents wondering why she didn’t contact them about their student’s struggle in class. Austin said she just doesn’t have time to call every student’s parents about how they’re doing. Parents should also be in touch with their child’s teachers.

“We can help communicate with educators,” Austin said.

Despite the challenges of the job, Austin has no plans to retire any time soon.

“My goal in life is to make a difference in my students’ lives,” Austin said. “I would feel accomplished if I made a difference in one student’s life.”

Shrader believes that Austin has already made a difference in the lives of the students.

“She’s one of the people who truly makes a difference. She encourages kids to follow their dreams and not be a burden on society but to be a real contributor.”

For more information

Parents can learn more about the B.I.O.N.I.C. Team by watching the this YouTube video and this follow-up one or e-mail bionicteam1@hotmail.com to get information on how to start a club at their school.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.