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Penn Benjamins founder Emily Derecktor (left) and organizer Ben Bolnick (right), both College seniors.

Credit: Julio Sosa

Penn Benjamins, a new peer counseling group, is open and ready to listen.

The organization officially launched last week, after training with Penn counseling professionals, to provide an informal service geared toward validating the daily college issues from an experienced peer. The group was founded by College seniors Emily Derecktor and Diego Fiori, College junior Roy Lan and 2015 College graduate Jordan Lidsky-Everson, and now consists of a board of six members.

“It’s not necessarily for a mental health problem,” co-founder Emily Derecktor said. “We’re a group of students that wants to help other students maximize their Penn experience.”

“The most important part of training was actually learning how to listen,” said College senior and member of the general body Ben Bolnick. “How to effectively open up and listen to what someone is trying to tell you and validate that ... just being there to give somebody the open ear that they might need.”

He added that their goal as peer counselors is “to try and help change the culture at Penn to be more aware of these kinds of things ... to understand how to listen to somebody.”

Penn Benjamins is run out of Huntsman Hall, Sundays from 7 to 11 p.m. in rooms F92 and F94 and Fridays from 1 to 5 p.m. in room G95, and Van Pelt Weigle Information Commons rooms 128 and 129 on Mondays and Tuesday from 7 until 11 p.m. Located in high-stress environments, it offers “a space on campus where you have us sitting there with a bunch of snacks and anyone is welcome to come in and talk,” Fiori said.

The goal of the group is to coordinate effort and ensure communication between peers. It serves as a middle-man between the student population and Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services, though it is a completely separate organization. “I feel like mental health is one of the social issues right now that is really underrepresented in people’s minds in America,” Fiori said. “A lot of people feel weird about the mental health stigma. Not everyone wants to go to CAPS.”

The founders branded Penn Benjamins as a “listening and referral service” that serves to facilitate open communication between students, but understands its limited professional skill. The relationship with CAPS allows the group to refer a student beyond its bounds of training to other resources more equipped to deal with mental health issues.

“We are not trying to treat you — we’re just here to talk,” Fiori said.

Derecktor said that the club didn’t directly form in response to any specific event but to help guide anyone facing stress.

“All of us know what it is like to transition into college and I think that peer voice isn’t present as much as it could be,” she added. “This is the beginning, I think, of a culture change.”

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