NAUGATUCK — Kindness. Inclusion. Compassion. These are the traits of a good wingman.
City Hill Middle School is in its second year of the Wingman Program and the results are evident.
“We have seen big changes in our kids and the school as a whole, creating a positive school climate,” art teacher and Wingman Teacher Adviser Christina Rinaldi said.
The Wingman Program is part of Dylan’s Wings of Change, a nonprofit organization founded to honor Dylan Hockley. Hockley was one of the students killed during the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.
The program’s goal is to promote inclusion, foster teamwork and build a positive environment whereby all students can grow into self-sufficient, caring community members.
City Hill was one of three middle schools in the state selected to pilot the program last school year.
“I think last year it was new and it was a blank canvas. We weren’t sure where we were going with it. Once we got a game plan I think it ended up being OK,” said language arts teacher Carolyn Laurentus, who helped to implement the program at City Hill. “We put everything together and learned from our mistakes, what worked and what didn’t work.”
The program hosted two events for students last week.
On Sept. 15, public speaker Eddie Slowikowski spoke to students about the importance of supporting each other and the Wingman Program.
On Sept. 16, the skills students learned in the program were put to the test with a field day, featuring games such as giant Jenga, a live version of Hungry Hungry Hippos and cornhole. The games required students to work together in order to win.
“It was really fun today and most of the kids I talked to said they enjoyed all the activities and want to do it again. Many of them said that it was for Dylan, so I believe the message we heard yesterday in the assembly by Eddie, and the lessons we learned last year as seventh-graders stuck with us,” said eighth-grader Jackie Mota, who is a wingman squad leader.
Fellow eighth-graders and squad leaders Kevin Healy and Zehra Hidimoglu echoed Mota’s comments.
“I really enjoyed today. People were helping each other out, making new friends, laughing and talking to each other,” Hidimoglu said.
“It was really fun and I loved being a wingman squadron leader and helping out with the games. I am really hoping that we are able to do more activities like this all year long,” Healy said.
Laurentus said the program is not going to completely change the culture of the school in just one year, but it’s off to a good start.
“It is going to take a little while. It is an everyday experience. Every period is a little different. I think it is learning to get along, be respectful, and not be hurtful toward people. I think we are learning that little by little,” Laurentus said.
Rinaldi said the impact of the program is noticeable at the school. She has worked with a group of students that helped students with special needs.
“These were kids who were good kids but sometimes they made not so good choices. All of a sudden they were helping out kids with special needs,” Rinaldi said. “I think they finally saw in themselves the positive things they can do. It’s just incredible.”
Rinaldi said some of those students even talked about pursuing a career helping people with special needs.
“I think helping out another kid, being their wingman, that’s what it’s about,” Rinaldi said.
The program at City Hill is being used as a model for other schools to follow, according to Laurentus.
As the program spreads to other schools, Laurentus has some advice: let the students have a voice in its creation and implementation.
“If kids are hearing it from their peers they have a tendency to take a little more in,” Laurentus said.
Looking back after the first year, Laurentus said the program is “absolutely worth it.”
“If we can save one or two or a hundred kids, at least we made an impact on their lives. At least we did it and maybe it will turn it around and put them in a better place. That’s why it’s important to me,” Laurentus said.