Story by Sara Paul
Amidst the serene and pastoral Warwick elementary schools, a shy, scared second grader has visible anxiety when faced with an ill parent. Another youngster shows signs of social anxiety.
Just down the road at the Warwick Valley High School, busy seniors are in a pre-college frenzy. Calculus and Advanced Placement English classes are daunting, athletic practice and homework are exhausting, and college applications are piled high.
Through the Golden Path (GP), somehow, some way, some very special young adults are creating a bridge of mentorship and friendship with their elementary counterparts.
The Golden Path is the brain child of Olivia O’Connor, who was charged with creating a sustainable senior year Girl Scout Project. With her love of children and passion for community outreach, this huge effort based on both seemed a natural fit.
The Golden Path project aims to provide role models who visit both Park Avenue and Sanfordville Elementary Schools twice a week to offer a safe, comfortable place to discuss life’s stressors and connect with peers, just a bit older, just a bit wiser.
“I always looked up to upper classmen, athletes, and scholars, and I just feel it’s so important to have those leaders in your life,” said Olivia, a Girl Scout since age five.
The devoted and enthusiastic teen created very specific lesson plans that include nods to the Warwick elementary school Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Program, ROAR (Respect, Outstanding Choices, Acceptance, Responsibility) and PAWS (Polite, Accountable, Wise Choices, Safety First). Through candid discussions, meaningful drawing and coloring, and fun activities, these interactive sessions help kids open up about what’s truly going on in their fertile minds.
“These students can get pretty deep in some very mature conversations with us,” explains Olivia, who carefully selected other high school students to act as guest speakers, another key component of the project.
“I looked at upperclassmen who were just good people, whether into sports or the arts or could just promote being a really decent human being,” said Olivia, adding that her lessons have a strong focus on empathy, confidence, and embracing one’s own uniqueness.
Now in her first year at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Olivia has passed the golden torch to trusted friends, Erin Flannery, Mikayla Ford, and Chané Garvey.
“This really taught me how to trust others and kind of let go of something and not have so much trouble allowing others to take on the work,” said Olivia, who, with project faculty advisor Eugene Burns, worked over the summer to transition the project to its new commander in chiefs.
Burns commented, “I have been very impressed with their efforts…which have included a diverse group of students to work with the elementary students. I know the high school students enjoy the program very much and have improved greatly in their leadership and communication skills.”
“This program is definitely a win/win. Not only do the elementary students benefit, but the high school students as well,” noted Burns, a Social Studies teacher and Student Senate Advisor, who has been employed at Warwick Valley Central Schools for 32 years.
The new Golden Path trio are carrying on Olivia’s tradition while also adding some of their own new flavor.
“We wanted to keep it the same, but are also augmenting and adding,” said Erin, who, with her team, has looked at such topical issues as empathy, diversity, and the trappings of technology.
Her favorite is an empathy activity called “Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes,” in which kids will draw shoes and learn that, “you don’t know what burden others are carrying; always check in and this can change someone’s whole world.”
The teens have been truly inspired by, and impressed with, the elementary kids.
“They are so good, so smart, and so bright. They’re always on their best behavior with us,” Erin said.
“These are young kids who understand universal concepts. They are interested in us and we are interested in them,” said Mikayla, noting that second grade seems to be an appropriate age to chat with youngsters as they can partake in indoor activities like coloring as well as outdoor team building, such as the blindfold trust or the thought bubble parachute.
Another favorite GP lesson plan is geared towards diversity. Students are asked to draw a picture of a friend, and then instructed to alter the drawing in some way, perhaps adding green hair or erasing a limb. GP leaders then ask, “Would you still be friends with this person?”
The activity’s post-discussion is a poignant and personal perspective, and a critical one, according to GP members.
“They think about it for a few minutes and are hesitant and confused at first. This shows our need to reinforce that you need to focus on inside characteristics,” said Mikayla, adding that the young teachers also take time to teach pertinent vocabulary and related academics.
“It’s a very meaningful, mutual conversation of respect. We aren’t there to lecture these kids. They know it’s an equal playing field, even though we seem so big because we are in high school,” she said, adding that, “It’s therapeutic for high school kids to be with these kids and see how pure they are.”
The pre-professionals are also benefitting from formal collaboration and administrative duties with teachers and parents. Necessary letters, e-mails, and lesson plans are just a sampling of the paperwork they must complete on a regular basis.
The trust and validation they have received from parents and educators are not aspects the teens take for granted.
“We know it’s a big deal to allow us to work with their children, and we are so grateful to the teachers, parents, and administration for trusting us and giving us this opportunity,” said Erin, who has been accepted to Colgate University.
As per the case with the best of educators, lessons do not always go as planned, and so the young teachers are learning important skills like problem-solving and thinking on their feet.
“Some days they don’t comply, and you think maybe you’re not getting to them and you doubt yourself,” notes Mikayla, resolving that, “…we have to see where the holes are and alter our plans to satisfy the kids.”
As time has inevitably marched on, the responsible, forward-thinking seniors are already planning the next torch passing, selecting two juniors, Liam Fomin and Ellie Glover, to carry on.
“They are two of the nicest students… just phenomenal, really sweet, and amazing with kids,” said Mikayla, noting that the group is glad to have a consistent male presence.
With the Golden Path continuing its golden journey, founder Olivia looks back on the richness the experience has brought to her teenage journey.
She strongly affirms, “This has had such positive, long lasting effects on my life. These kids view the world in a beautiful and untouched way. It’s taught me to look at life that way… and that you get what you give.”
To learn more about the Golden Path, check out their Instagram at teachandinspire2018 or contact the group by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.