Three words came to mind upon meeting Barrington High School Guidance Counselor Ray Piagentini: Kindness, compassion and selflessness. His years of devotion to District 220 students has not gone unnoticed, as he has been named one of 26 national semi-finalists in the 2013 School Counselor of the Year awards.
Piagentini, or “Piag” as he is fondly referred to by students, has been helping kids find their path in life for 37 years. His bold but loving personality has a way with the kids, who typically feel very comfortable opening up to him.
“I try to show the kids to live a life of significance and service. Too many people don’t listen to that quiet personal voice that tells them what they’re destined to do,” Piagentini said.
One of the ways Piagentini helps students find what their life’s mission is all about is through Brother’s Keeper, the South Dakota Crow Creek Indian Reservation trip he has organized and chaperoned for the past 13 years.
“As a counselor we can’t teach by modeling. I wanted to take kids and show them that you can really believe in yourself you can do whatever you want. You take them to a county where they have nothing. It opens their eyes and their heart,” he said.
For the Barrington students, seeing a life so vastly different from their own leaves them forever changed.
“You and this club and this trip gave me a reason to do something with myself and ultimately a reason to really live,” a student’s letter to Piagentini read.
“You showed me that there’s more to this life than what car you drive, what clothes you wear…you taught me that people around me matter more than objects…you gave my life a perspective that I can measure it by. For that, I am eternally grateful,” another student letter reads.
Piagentini has a binder four inches thick with letters of similar substance. The common theme: The Brother’s Keeper trip made students step outside of their comfort zone and explore who they really are.
“It impacts the kids huge,” Piagentini said. “Some of the challenges are very ugly. I do it to help develop leaders; every kid has leadership potential…I’m honored that they take the journey with me.”
Suicide Prevention Work
Piagentini is also very passionate about suicide prevention, and makes it his mission to educate students about the dangers and warning signs associated with it.
“When I started 37 years ago, a saw a kid leaving school with all of his books and said he’s checking out. That spurred me to do a lot of suicide prevention," he said.
Piagentini has a unique plan of action he’d like to take in Barrington to help save more lives. His idea is to find seven safe houses in Barrington, like local churches and restaurants, that will be staffed by a counselor every night of the week.
“Most of this stuff happens when the kids are out late at night, when we’re not there,” he said. “If kids are at a party and know something’s going on, they can look at a card and see where the Safe House is for that night and go there…we could save more lives.”
A Student Says "Pilamaya"
Following her second trip to the Crow Creek Indian Reservation, a Barrington student wrote a lengthy letter journaling her time there. Her thoughts were deep and profound, but mostly, she wanted to say thank-you to Piagentini and everyone who makes the event happen each year.
“Pilamaya (the Native American word for thank-you) To you, the reader, and everyone involved in this program (Brother’s Keeper), you have helped me understand more about hope and the nature of humanity (including myself) than I might have otherwise taken a lifetime to understand…Pilamaya,” the letter reads.
It’s clear that Piagentini has touched countless lives through his service as a counselor. But for him, it’s not about an award or other accomplishments. It’s always about the kids.
“I’ve learned more from our kids and the Indian kids than any masters or PHd programs I’ve ever had,” he said.