Program helps students connect

Naugatuck Youth Services adult mentor Ron Bottacari, left, helps Naugatuck High School sophomore Aishah Wade with her homework during the ARMORY Peer Leadership Program in November at the former armory on Rubber Avenue in Naugatuck. –LUKE MARSHALL

NAUGATUCK — In January, the Teen Advisory Board of Naugatuck Youth Services expressed the need for more activities and programs for middle school and high school students. However, the Naugatuck Youth Services office on Scott Street doesn’t have sufficient space to hold a large number of students and to facilitate some activities students desired.

Naugatuck Youth Services found the answer it was looking for about a mile up the road on Rubber Avenue.

Naugatuck Youth Services hosts the ARMORY Peer Leadership Program on Wednesdays at the former armory on Rubber Avenue. The student-led after-school program provides a space for middle school and high school students to study, exercise, play and get to know each other.

“Usually, we start with the opening ceremony where everyone shares their name and their grade, and introduces themselves to new members of the group,” said Nicole Wiley, who is the prevention and youth leadership coordinator for Naugatuck Youth Services and the supervisor of the leadership program. “Then, we answer a question about a theme for the week or the month. There’s usually a reason for the question.”

The questions can range from students’ favorite monster and Halloween candy to their favorite song or musician.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, students played kickball and basketball, and then convened for a discussion about the resources that are needed to improve the program, community and borough.

The group discussions allow students to express their own personal beliefs, preferences and experiences while learning more about their peers, mentors, community and the world.

Students also meet in smaller groups for a more participatory conversation. Afterwards, one person from each group volunteers to share ideas from their discussion.

During a portion of the program referred to as “#RealTalk,” students express their greatest fear and their past response to an interpersonal conflict. At other times, students are asked to create their own substance-abuse prevention campaign.

The program was conceived from the need to develop a sense of community among students and the borough.

“The ARMORY program ultimately stands for Active Role Modeling of Resilient Youth,” said Brenna Yaeger, a senior at Naugatuck High School, a Teen Advisory Board member and a peer leader.

“The goals of the program [are] increasing teens’ feelings of being connected to the community, providing positive role models and opportunities to later become role models themselves, promoting positive outlooks on life, increasing self-confidence, improving life skills and mastering the ability to work with a team,” Yaeger added.

The state conveyed the armory property, which was used by the Connecticut National Guard, to Naugatuck. The borough officially took ownership of the land in November 2016 to use for recreational, educational and public purposes.

Currently, Naugatuck Youth Services shares the space with the Naugatuck Park and Recreation Department.

Renovations needed to the building delayed the start of the ARMORY program until September.

The program typically runs from 2 to 6 p.m. with high school students arriving around 2 p.m. and middle school students coming about 45 minutes later. On its busiest day, the program hosts about 40 students, primarily from Naugatuck High School and City Hill Middle School.

Many of the students who attend continue to do so week after week.

“It takes off the stress,” said Jackie Mota, a freshman at Naugatuck High School. “It’s been really cool.”

There are several peer leaders and adult mentors who help to supervise, coach, tutor and connect with students.

“I was interested in helping kids do better with their math,” said Ron Bottacari, an adult mentor who tutors students in math.

“They are energetic. They are good kids,” added Bottacari about the students who attend the program.