Note: The following profile was written after conducting a World Wide Web and literature review about Mr. Sachnoff and having the distinct honor of a telephone interview with him about his work and ideas regarding peer helping. Mr. Ira Sachnoff currently lives in San Francisco, California, and works as an independent consultant.
Ira Sachnoff is highly recognized as one of the “founding fathers” of the peer helper movement and a pivotal icon within the National Peer Helpers Association (NPHA). Among his many accomplishments, he is most known for being instrumental in the formation of NPHA, especially for serving as the organization’s first president. Together with the initial Board of Directors, he worked tirelessly in building the organization and coordinating national conferences for its members.
Ira’s role in developing the peer helper movement can be traced back 30 years when, as a high school student, he was a peer helper in the New York City schools. He views this time and experience as being the roots of who he was as a person and what he wanted to do with his life. This brought about a real change in his life, a change that would, in fact, direct lifelong efforts.
When asked how his life was better for having been in peer counseling, Mr. Sachnoff replied, “It gave me an opportunity to look at myself and an opportunity to help others. It afforded me the opportunity of looking at my own feelings and being sensitive to other people’s needs, of thinking about things before saying them.” He became very involved in helping people with their drug problems. One of his areas of expertise in high school was in talking other kids down from bad “trips.” “I found something I loved doing and was good at. It fed me,” he confesses.
After graduating from high school, Mr. Sachnoff attended Queens College in New York City. During his last semester he earned his final credits by working in a peer resource program called the “Friendly Alternative.” During this internship, he received wonderful mentoring from Mort and Arleen Glassel, program directors. He readily acknowledges what great influence they had on him, motivating him to become a leader in the field.
In 1975, Mr. Sachnoff moved to San Francisco and finished his BA and began work on his Masters Degree in Social Psychology at San Francisco State University. While there, he became involved in the Center for Institutional Change (CIC). He participated in an internship and peer counseling program run by students at the college level. He found himself as one of 18 students/staff who did a little bit of everything.
“I interviewed, did placement, ran groups, facilitated; I did everything you needed to do in service learning/peer counseling programs,” he stated. It was apparent that peer counseling and alternative education were becoming strong focal points in his life at this time. This was also the time of his first experience at being a Board member. He was elected as a student representative to the Board of the National Society for Internship in Experiential Education (NSIEE). This was the beginning of his experience and career with Boards of Directors. “I learned how Boards operate. It was fascinating,” he shared.
In 1980, Ira began his own peer resource program at Galileo High School in California. The San Francisco Unified School District asked the CIC if they could do something in the local high schools in peer counseling. Ira was asked by the CIC to assist with this project 2-3 days a week if possible. During this first year, he acted as a consultant to the person in charge of developing the programs, and the following year Mr. Sachnoff became the codirector. During this time and through 1984, he continued to run the Galileo High School peer resource center.
During the same time that other peer programs were active in the San Francisco area, Ira came into contact with two other formidable leaders in peer helping, Bob Bowman and Barbara Varenhorst. Also, the American Association of Counseling and Development (AACD), now the American Counseling Association, held its meeting in New York City which became the meeting place for an interest meeting among Ira, Bob, Barbara, and others from throughout the country. At the next meeting of the AACD held in Los Angeles, Mr. Sachnoff met with Bob Bowman, Barbara Varenhorst, Michael Donnely, and Don Sorenson and had serious discussions about the progress of and their vision for peer counseling. Motivated by their belief in the efficacy of peer counseling and support of one another, they decided it was time to act.
As a result, the National Peer Helpers Association was born in 1984, a nonprofit corporation whose mission was (and still is) to provide leadership and promote excellence in the field of peer helping. Ira Sachnoff became the first president of NPHA and held the position for four years. Among his initial tasks were to establish a central office that was in his home, to create a Board of Directors, and to establish an annual convention for the group.
This first annual convention for the NPHA occurred in St. Charles, Missouri, in 1986. It was truly a special and ambitious time for the NPHA and its new Board. The bringing together for the first time of authors in their field and specialists was truly a memorable moment. Mr. Sachnoff recalls that the Board was, indeed, a Board of the people. At this first meeting, it was emphasized that those attending were needed and urged to become a part of the movement. Ira believes that this first meeting was a magical time with the excitement and synergy that were present. He still believes that many would consider this first meeting not only a grand step in the movement but also a time in which minds and hearts of so many were unified and directed in a common endeavor.
During the next 10 years, Mr. Sachnoff devoted his time and energy to both NPHA and the California Association of Peer Programs (CAPP). He also became the Director of the San Francisco Peer Resource Program, a position he held for almost 16 years. During that time, he helped expand the program from one school to more than 50.
Mr. Sachnoff counts as one of his proudest achievements the peer resource program started in Galileo High School in 1980, which is still in place today.
From the mid-1990s, his main commitment has been to California’s state peer helper association, CAPP, which he feels is vital to the future of peer counseling. Also, devoting time to CAPP has enabled Mr. Sachnoff to accomplish an aspect of professional development he finds critical – developing friendships and networking with other peer counseling directors. “It’s a very important part of my professional life,” he states. In 1996, Mr. Sachnoff left the San Francisco Peer Resource Program to become a private consultant. He currently consults with the Fremont Unified School District to develop peer resource programs in six high schools. “It’s what I do best,” he admits. In fact, most of his current work is performed in California and involves consulting with school districts and county offices of education about issues of prevention, peer helping programs, and youth development. “Youth development and resiliency are current topics being addressed in peer programs. We need to continue to look at what’s right with kids and promote that,” he urges. Upon reflection, Ira admits that he is somewhat disappointed that there wasn’t movement on the national level as he had hoped would happen. “Funding just never really happened. It’s tough getting funds for a volunteer, nonprofit organization,” he said. However, he is pleased that there is so much information about peer helping available on the Internet and that many state associations are thriving, especially as providers of strong training programs for persons interested in forming peer helper programs.
In assessing the present and future of peer helping, Mr. Sachnoff commented that, “Peer helping needs to be appropriate. It’s important to train people to develop individual programs suited to the needs of the schools. The strongest programs are where the directors and students on site have decision-making power over what those students will do.” He cites the following criteria as essential for building a successful program:
– Build a program around needs
– An adult coordinator, someone strong, yet not indispensable, is the most important item for success
– The program should not become dependent on the coordinator
– Get the support of administration and faculty
– Ask the adults what they want; we need to listen to them before starting
He also stresses, “Most people get in the peer helping business because they want to serve kids and they see need. Looking long-term, we need to have some vision on how to gain adult support.” Mr. Sachnoff believes that we will always have a need for peer programs as long as we have schools with problems. “It is vital,” he said, “that schools and communities come to see the need for peer programs like any other program. Schools need to view peer programs as important and as basic to operations as language arts program. It needs to become institutionalized.”
Robert Gerrick is a graduate student in the mental health counseling program,and Russell A. Sabella, PhD is an associate professor, both at Florida Gulf Coast University. Inquiries may be made to Dr. Sabella, 10501 FGCU BLVD SOUTH, College of Education, Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers, FL 33965-6565 or via email at [email protected].