Just before graduation, seniors at Estancia High School can participate in a 5-day RESPECT Program, which provides real-life education and training for young adults who are preparing to leave small, rural communities to attend college or work in urban locations. 

Janice Barela who is currently the chief deputy treasurer of Torrance County started the program in 2007, after a female Estancia High School graduate was attacked on a large college campus. Having worked as an administrative assistant in the school system, Barela said it really bothered her; her oldest daughter was in the first class.

“We did a great job as a small community to keep our kids safe and we encouraged them to do their best academically,” Barela said. “We may not have done our best to prepare them with street smarts—to be aware of their surroundings whenever they left our small community. We needed to do something about that.” 

That first year, Barela brought in someone to teach self-defense, and began to flesh out a program which she called “RESPECT, ” an acronym for “Real-Life Education for Self-Protection Empowering College-Bound Teens.” Over the years, the program has grown and now includes both boys and girls.

The program strives to empower students to make well-informed decisions and learn how to avoid dangerous, life-changing situations. 

The program is taught by members of the community—law enforcement, military, local business leaders, and other community members. Topics are added or deleted based on student feedback, and as times change, so do the topics. The 2019 class will explore defensive dating, self-defense, minor automotive care, financial literacy, stress management and first aid training. “One thing that has changed, that kids have to deal with, is social media,” Barela said. 

While the program isn’t mandatory, most seniors choose to participate. Because of its length, some students, due to scheduling, academic or work conflicts may pick and choose which parts they attend. Because attendance is not mandatory, the instructors find that the participants are more engaged, and most attend all five days, Barela said. 

This year, Estancia students were joined by students from Corona and Mountainair. District Attorney Clint Wellborn has picked up the program and taken it to other high schools in the Seventh Judicial District. 

Barela said the students enjoy the self-defense portion of the program the most, not just because it’s hands-on, but because it offers them an opportunity to explore their strengths and learn how to avoid becoming victims and that they also like the session at the Perpetual Tears Memorial in Moriarty where they can drive a golf cart through an obstacle course while wearing goggles which simulate the effects of drunkenness. Financial literacy is another favorite, despite its dry content, because so many students admit that they get stressed thinking about dealing with finances once they leave home, she said. This year because of its popularity, the program added Financial Adulting 101 and 102. 

While much of the learning takes place in mixed groups, sometimes the subjects work better if the boys and girls are separated, Barela said.

“There are times when the topic is a little more sensitive. Not so much on the delivery of the information—we give the same information to both groups,” Barela said. “We want to be more mindful of the answers the kids might give. In case of the defensive dating, we keep that separate in case any of the girls want to say something—or vice-versa with the guys. It often lends itself to more personal conversations.” 

Sometimes learning is better facilitated in smaller groups, such as in CPR or sessions where equipment must be shared. 

Barela said instructors and parents know the value of the life skills they are teaching their students, and that feeling is reinforced when a former student comes back to tell how they applied what they learned in class to the real world. 

Barela said she tears up when she thinks of a RESPECT graduate who reached out to her via Facebook and confided that she’d been accosted at a party and described how she’d nearly been raped by two men. The student told her that while she initially froze in panic, the self-defense training she’d learned in high school came back to her and she successfully fought them off. 

“If it weren’t for our program she wouldn’t have known what to do,” Barela said. “She would have stayed petrified, and it would have been a really bad situation. But because she went through the program, she learned how to fight, and she was a survivor. She asked me to never, never stop offering this program. It certainly made a difference in her life.”

Barela says that she’s heard of a few more instances of graduates using the skills learned, but she hopes that the reason the majority don’t report back is because they’ve used something they learned in class to avoid getting into bad situations in the first place. 

For more information about the RESPECT program, contact Janice Barela at 505-903-1858 or by email jybarela@gmail.com.