Northern Lights Youth Services: Reality Check

What if all children were self-confident, resilient and empowered to reach their full potential?

Photo of Lee Erickson
7 7

Written by

Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

In the early 2000’s, the Northern Lights SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) network was gaining considerable attention for the innovative youth prevention strategies it was developing. Under the guidance of its parent nonprofit, Northern Lights Youth Services, the regional network including chapters across the Dakotas and Minnesota was utilizing youth-friendly technologies and messaging to positively impact students and entire student bodies and create change. High school behavioral statistics began improving and evidence began surfacing that the overall climates in participating schools was changing. In 2003 came a new challenge. Numerous parents, students and professionals told Northern Lights SADD leadership that we should develop programming to address elementary students. They claimed that peer pressure was affecting young people at earlier ages all the time, and that by the time students reached high school (the traditional audience for SADD programming), attitudes, behavioral patterns, sense of self and respect for others (or lack of same) was already well established. After discussing the idea with SADD student leaders and chapter advisors, who gave their enthusiastic support, the Reality Check curriculum was developed. This curriculum, designed for elementary grades four through six, intends to enhance self-esteem, respect for others, strengthen protective assets and resiliency factors, and develop positive and healthy lifestyles.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • North Dakota

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • North Dakota

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Hillsboro ND, Bismarck ND, New Rockford ND, Devils Lake ND, Pelican Rapids MN, Redfield SD, Gayville SD, and several other locations across the Dakotas and Minnesota, as we operate a three-state regional effort.

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Issues facing youth are constantly evolving. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey in North Dakota states the percentages of students smoking traditional cigarettes, drinking, or not wearing a seatbelt has decreased. The percentages of students feeling hopeless, attempting suicide, and using devices such as E-cigarettes are rising. Pressure from the use of social media is increasing and affecting students at ever-younger ages. Lessons taught by school staff are out of date and do not provide the youth perspective on a rapidly-changing world. With Reality Check, Northern Lights Youth Services is working towards communities where all youth are educated on topics like bullying, self esteem and an overall healthy lifestyle, as well as solidified identities. Older students delivering these messages encourages the younger students to walk in their footsteps towards being safe, healthy and self-aware.

Northern Lights Youth Services believes that all children are deserving of a strong self-identity, accepting the factors and circumstances that make them unique, and being respectful of the same in others. We feel the best delivery system for accomplishing this is through older youth mentors/role models. The Reality Check curriculum we have developed is a comprehensive, yet youth-friendly program designed to be presented to elementary children by high school students. It intends to build an enhanced sense of self, respect for others, and healthy lifestyles, equipping children with resistance skills, resiliency and hope for the future in a culturally appropriate manner.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • No, not explicitly

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Growth (the pilot has already launched and is starting to expand)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

If a school decides to implement the Reality Check curriculum in an elementary school they visit with classroom teachers and administrators and recruit high school student facilitators who are also strong role models. Northern Lights Youth Services provides them with curriculum sets and a brief training for the students, and puts the local adult contact in touch with the project evaluators at North Dakota State University for coordinating the pre and post tests. Once the pre-test is completed, high school students implement the series of eight lessons for 4th, 5th and 6th graders, all of which include take-home sheets for parents to involve them as well. Once the lessons are completed, the post-test is given to participating students.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

In the 2015-2016 school year, about 12 schools with active SADD chapters across the Dakotas participated in piloting the newly-revised Reality Check program, impacting several hundred elementary students. About a third of those schools participated in the evaluation of the program, and those results are being compiled by North Dakota State University. Preliminary evidence shows that the sample group showed increases in general self-esteem, self-esteem with peer relations, body image, refusal skills and self efficacy. These results are in line with evaluations of earlier editions of the program. More research on the effects of Reality Check will be conducted in the 2016-2017 school year. Qualitative data from school counselors and students indicates that Reality Check connects with students on a personal level, witnessed by the number of recipients who go on to become future facilitators

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $250k - $500k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

The Reality Check program depends primarily upon local youth volunteers and schools, so once established it can be sustained long-term. Originally developed in North Dakota, the project has expanded to South Dakota and Minnesota and is being considered in other states as well, where it will be available at a very reasonable cost. Grants are being sought to expand project research and prove the effectiveness of this promising model.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

Reality Check is a copyrighted peer to peer curriculum that uses high school facilitators to reach younger kids with lessons on behavioral health issues of many forms, from underage drinking to self esteem. This unique, sustainable program has been used in many schools for the the last 12 years. While other curricula may include similar content, few of them are designed to be peer-based, and we are aware of no other program that provides delivery within an existing support network such as a SADD chapter. This provides a continuum where program recipients often become future facilitators.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

Among young people, there seems to be an increasing acceptance of differences between individuals regarding race, family structure, religion and sexual orientation. Obviously, hurdles still exist and must be overcome, but we feel that empowering youth to nurture other youth is vitally important. We feel that the key to a child’s ultimate wellbeing is embracing the value of his or her individuality and that of all others. We need to cultivate positive and meaningful connections between youth themselves and with their communities to provide them with a sense of identity and support.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Program Design Clarity

While Reality Check was designed to work hand-in-hand with the Northern Lights SADD program that our nonprofit oversees, the model can work with other groups of youth as well. While our primary beneficiary of SADD is teens, we tap into the passions of those teens to enable them to make a difference. Usually those passions involve directly helping younger kids, and that is where the concept of Reality Check has its roots. Our nonprofit acts as a conduit for information, research, networking opportunities, programming and training for affiliated youth groups who adapt our ideas to local needs.

Community Leadership

Our efforts are grounded in the belief that the greatest agents of change for young people are youth themselves. We rely upon feedback from youth leaders and their supportive adults regarding issues of local relevance and environmental factors and develop tools to help them make a difference. This is consistent with our mission of promoting positive youth development, in all its forms. It builds confidence and develops leadership skills.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 6 - 12

Spread Strategies

We are planning to introduce Reality Check to more schools across the Dakotas and Minnesota in the 2016-2017 school year, including schools on Native American reservations. The ultimate goal is to work with the evaluation team to obtain a multi-year federal research grant to prove the long-term results of the program and get it listed on the federal registry of model programs. We feel it is a model that can be replicated successfully anywhere.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

The purpose of Reality Check is to build a foundation of a strong sense of self, respect for others, and use that as a basis for a safe, healthy and purposeful decision making. Quantitative data indicates that we have been successful, and feedback from students and adult advisors attests to the long-term effects. Many program recipients go on to become future facilitators themselves, providing a continuum and a peer-based support structure.

Leadership Story

I have worked closely with young people for over 20 years, first just through SADD, and later through the work of our nonprofit. I believe the most effective change agents for children are their older peers. I also believe that all youth are at risk, not just certain demographic groups. They are all vulnerable and share many common needs as well as potential. That is why I have helped youth develop peer-based tools to address their constantly-evolving issues, fears and insecurities, and do everything in my power to provide them with an environment in which they can be themselves and thrive.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

Reality Check was selected as a program to be included in a regional Service to Science session hosted by the Centers for the Application of Prevention Technologies in 2005. Through this process, we learned how to better include proven theory and evaluation in our model.

Organization's Twitter Handle


Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)

Leader's LinkedIn Profile (URL)


Join the conversation:

Photo of Jorge Michael

Hi Lee, I love the idea of having older students teaching younger students on an ongoing basis. Very helpful that you have a University's assistance with the pre and post testing. I wonder if the decline in "intention" to engage in risky behavior translates into an actual decline in engaging in risky behavior as they get older.

View all comments