Forming the Future: Buddy program promotes connections at St. Mary of the Annunciation School

DANVERS -- In the hallways of St. Mary of the Annunciation School, it is not unusual to see middle school students exchange greetings with the children in preschool and kindergarten. Thanks to their unique "buddy program," the oldest and youngest students are able to form friendships that make the school a stronger community.

For the last 15 years, St. Mary's buddy program has been run by Kelly Letvinchuk, who teaches Pre-K3, and Nancy Usalis, who teaches middle school English, writing, and religion. Buddies meet once a week to do projects and activities together. Students in the sixth grade are paired with those in Pre-K4, seventh grade with kindergarten, and eighth grade with Pre-K3.

In an April 26 interview, Letvinchuk and Usalis identified the key themes of the buddy program: spreading kindness, building leadership skills, and facilitating friendship between students of different ages.

"We want this program to support all of our students, and we want to give them a sense of belonging. It's a program (in which) we want them to grow and foster relationships," Usalis said.

At the start of a new school year, the corresponding classes will usually have their first meeting outdoors. The students play together, and the teachers observe which ones are drawn to each other or find things they have in common. Most students meet with the same buddy for the full school year.

When they first meet, the new buddies might be nervous at first, especially if they have never been around someone of that age. But after a few weeks, they become like family.

"It's like having a cousin that's always looking out for them," Letvinchuk said.

For the Pre-K students, she said, the buddy program is a way to help them get to know more of the school.

"Pre-K doesn't typically venture too far out of our room and the playground, but it opens up the world to them, that they know someone's in this building who's looking out for them, who cares about them," Letvinchuk said.

The buddy program also ties in with the students' religious education. Buddies sit together at Mass and do projects related to the liturgical seasons and holidays. The older students teach the younger ones about prayers like the rosary and the stations of the cross.

Letvinchuk noted that the older students do not feel like they need to act "cool" among the preschool students. They can leave behind the social pressures of middle school and simply be themselves.

"When they come in, they are their true best selves," she said.

Another aspect of the buddy program that Letvinchuk appreciates is how it allows older students to become reacquainted with their former teachers. She said this is "a wonderful thing for both the student and the teacher."

"I love the relationships that we get to build as teachers, because they come back to us. We had them when they were little and we get to see them again," she said.

The middle school students also help with other leadership roles in the school. For example, the eighth grade helps with various aspects of the annual trike-a-thon, a fundraiser for St. Jude Children's Hospital. They make posters for the event, run the water station, and cheer on the participating students.

"It's a real sense of volunteering to make your corner of the world a better place to be," Usalis said.

One highlight of the school year is making Boxes of Joy, a project of Cross-Catholic Outreach. Students in Usalis' religion class assemble the boxes and promote the program in the school. Each student and staff member fills a box with Christmas gifts for impoverished children, such as toys, clothes, hygiene supplies, and school supplies. The seventh and eighth graders inspect the boxes to make sure all the items are age-appropriate and follow the criteria. Last year, the school collected over 200 Boxes of Joy.

"It empowers these young men and women and gives them a sense of leadership," Usalis said.

Letvinchuk said the younger "buddies" remember their mentors for years afterwards, and some buddies' parents help them keep in touch when school is over. She said it is "bittersweet" when the eighth-grade class graduates, but the younger students look forward to the time when they will be the mentors.

She expressed her gratitude to Usalis and the middle school students, who she said make the buddy program "stronger and more impactful" for the PreK students.

"It adds a whole new dimension to have them with us," she said.