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Massena High School students bond through Learn to Lead program

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MASSENA - Twenty-eight Massena High School students used boating, mountain climbing, high ropes and campfire sessions to get to know each other better.

It was part of the school’s Learn to Lead program, which links juniors and seniors with freshmen and sophomore who might be facing challenges either personally or academically.

The students spent three days together at SUNY Cortland’s Camp Huntington Outdoor Education Center in Raquette Lake, participating in team-building activities and other events designed to build a relationship between the mentors and mentees.

“We do a bunch of activities - team building and trust activities to break down the barriers. It provides extra support. It’s intensive,” ninth grade guidance counselor Erin Covell said.

She said the Learn to Lead program was started by physical education teacher Mary Arcadi, with the support of the special education staff in 2007 more as a way to mentor special education students. But now its focus is on underclassmen who might be having issues at school or on the personal level.

“We found it’s more beneficial to students who are not connected to school,” Ms. Covell said, noting mentors “learn what it’s like to have a different perspective about school. Everybody learns something.”

This year’s effort was in jeopardy, however, because the program had been cut in the budget.

“(Interim Superintendent) Bill Crist put it back in for us,” guidance counselor Robert Jordan said.

Linking up students was made easier because of the implementation of the Link Crew program at the high school. Link Crew students are juniors and seniors who have volunteered to act as mentors for freshmen students at the beginning of the year. Each Link Crew team has approximately 10 to 12freshmen students who are in contact with each other throughout the year to help ease the transition to high school.

“Link Crew is a big help,” Mr. Jordan said. “For at-risk students, we have to find leaders who fit that personality.”

“It’s more intensive (than Link Crew),” Ms. Covell said.

One of the day’s activities include breakfast, lunch, dinner, high ropes, homework and time at a campfire. The third and final day includes breakfast, clean-up of the cabins, a boat trip over the lake and a hike up a mountain.

“It’s a natural progression. It builds up to the end - hiking up the mountain,” Mr. Jordan said.

Every event has a purpose, he said, whether it’s participating in the high ropes exercise to build trust or sitting around a campfire and sharing stories to build a relationship between the students.

“The campfire was the best part,” said senior Josh Blair, one of the mentors.

“That’s when we got to see people open up and express themselves,” added junior Emily Wilmshurst, another mentor.

“Students feel comfortable telling their story. They see the leaders in front of them opening up and they also open up,” Mr. Jordan said.

Teamwork is also emphasized during the breakfast, lunch and dinner meals, and there’s also time for students to get together for homework, with mentors providing tutoring.

The meals, Mr. Jordan said, are “family-style” and students can be responsible for tasks such as KP duty, setting the tables or cleaning.

“There’s a certain amount of pride involved in the whole meal,” he said, calling the meals “impactful.”

The students and staff who participated in the three-day excursion said it provided a valuable experience both for the mentors and the mentees.

“It brought a bunch of teenagers together who had never interacted with each other and made them a united family,” said senior Nikki Zeitzmann, who moved from Georgia to Massena and is in her first year at Massena High School.

“The mentees come to different mentors. Even though they’re comfortable with their mentor, they can make a connection with another mentor,” she said.

Because of the experience, Ms. Zeitzmann said, she’s considering a change in careers.

“This trip has really benefited me. It showed me the path I want to go in life. I feel able to help people in a positive way. It really impacted my life,” she said.

“It was really eye-opening. You know you’re there for someone who didn’t always have someone and they can put their trust in you,” Ms. Wilmshurst noted. “When one person sees you do it, they know they can do it, too. It’s one step closer to having trust.”

“It’s actually a melding of students for the students’ growth,” Mr. Jordan said. “It’s a process. It takes some time to start up. You throw something out there and see if they take it. You see where the whole process tips. It’s at that point where everybody buys into the program.”

He said the Learn to Lead and Link Crew programs can help not only students, but also teachers.

“Teachers have less time that they’re able to connect with students. There’s less faculty and less connections. Link Crew is timely for us, to be able to bring relationships among peers,” he said.

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