AHS REACH students learn life lessons from younger peers

Published 7:34 am Thursday, December 20, 2018

Irma Valladares, 18, rolled the dice and moved her game piece on the Candyland board. Her opponent was Marisol Flores, 8, and the two have been intensely focused on trying to race each other on finding King Kandy by going through the Candy Cane Forest and Gumdrop Mountain.

The Austin High School senior and Neveln Elementary School second grader seemed like an unlikely pairing, but the two had developed a close bond during the last two years as part of REACH’s mentoring project. Now, the two have something to look forward to each month, which was what Wednesday morning was all about: spending time together.

“I get excited,” Flores said about Valladares’ visit. “I like playing board games and with playdough.”

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“It’s our thing,” Valladares responded with a big smile. “I love this, and I’m going to miss this next year. I enjoy coming out here and getting to play and leave my high school problems behind for a little bit.”

This marked the second year of REACH’s mentorship project, where 42 students from the high school were paired with Neveln students and spend 20 minutes once a month mentoring their younger peers at the elementary school. REACH is a voluntary, in-school program that’s designed to help students who may need support academically, socially, or emotionally.

Angie Taylor, REACH teacher, said that this project helps her REACH students become the best version of themselves and learn more about giving back, as well as younger students learning about empathy and emotions.

“They’re really learning how one relationship can change everything,” Taylor said. “It’s been really great, and my students have enjoyed the time they spend with their mentees. When you ride the bus and see the before and after, it has been an instant mood boost for my students.”

From last year, the REACH mentoring project started with 15 students in its pilot year, and had since expanded to 42 students the following year. Even after the visits are over, REACH students still contact their mentees with letters to check in on them and to remind them of their next scheduled visit to Neveln. Taylor said that the program tries to keep partners the same from the previous program year, so that pairings continue to build their relationships with the same person.

“Every month students have this to look forward to,” Taylor said. “My students always ask ‘When are we seeing them?’ and the Neveln kids would say ‘When are the high school kids coming?’ It’s been really great.”

This was the case for Antwan Chandy, 18, an AHS senior who played Guess Who? with his mentee Payton Christianson, 9, a Neveln fourth grader. The two were paired together the previous year, and have since become good friends.

What was also unique about their pairing was that the two were next-door neighbors and didn’t realize it until the REACH program started the mentorship program.

Lexus Schafer plays around with some play dough with Neveln Elementary students Cece Baez, right, and Nifaya Perkins, left. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

“I noticed outside that Payton was there,” Chandy said. “I thought ‘Is that Payton?’ and thought ‘What’s good, Payton?’ We’ve had a great time, and I love spending time with him. I never try to miss a day when we’re coming out to Neveln. It’s a fun time.”

When Christianson was partnered with Chandy, he said that he was happy to be with someone who he knew, and had continued to learn more from as the program progressed. Chandy turned from just a “neighbor” into a familiar, friendly face during the past two years.

“It’s kind of nice to spend time with my neighbor,” Christianson said. “We do different things.”

As the 20 minutes were up, there was a combined response of dismay as the students were told to clean up.

“What? No! No,” Chandy cried out. “One more game!”