When Fox Lane High School junior Joe Rozgonyi was entering his freshman year, he was determined to do whatever he could to give back to his community.
Rozgonyi, who enjoys working with younger children, rounded up his childhood friends to return to their alma mater, Mount Kisco Elementary School, to launch the program It’s Elementary – Giving Back to Where It All Started.
“The idea was that freshman in high school would be paired with second-graders at Mount Kisco Elementary School with the plan to meet every month of the school year for the next four years until both the mentors and mentees graduate,” Rozgonyi said. “I discussed my idea with a few friends who also attended Mount Kisco Elementary School and we all agreed this was something we wanted to do.”
The program, now in its third year, provides guidance and friendship to children who need extra support as they navigate their way through the primary school grades. Rozgonyi said roughly seven high school freshmen mentors based on their maturity level and enthusiasm for working with young children.
“We handpicked every person we thought would be perfect for this program,” mentor Jack Barone said.
The elementary school currently has three mentor groups comprised of freshmen, sophomores and juniors who assist second-, third- and fourth-graders. The program was also recently launched at Bedford Hills Elementary School.
The same number of elementary students are chosen for each group based on recommendations from the school psychologist.
Mentors need to have attended the elementary school they are volunteering at in order to participate. Each mentor group meets with the elementary students once a month for 90-minute sessions where they do homework, play games, learn activities and crafts and provide a helpful hand or shoulder to lean on.
Mount Kisco Elementary School Assistant Principal Angelique Johnson said her school’s students are enthusiastic when they see their mentors. She said they rave about sharing how much fun they have, that their confidence soars, including making more friends, and that they can’t wait to be a mentor when they reach high school.
“While I have observed more outgoing, confident and smiling students when the ‘It’s Elementary’ mentors meet without second-, third- or fourth-graders, the benefits of this program are best described from the perspective of the students,” Johnson said. “These comments speak volumes about the connections that our students are making with their mentors.”
Rozgonyi said the program’s goal is to have both sets of students leave the program after four years having formed a strong bond. The high school students give back by helping a younger student achieve their personal goals and have someone they can turn to whenever they need, he said.
“We’re seeing them grow up,” Rozgonyi said. “Since we started working with them, we get to see how they’ve developed and grown into different people.”
While Rozgonyi and the program’s other founding members noted that their students were shy when they first met, Barone said the group has created such a strong bond that he hopes that their efforts have benefited the younger children.
“They are all really comfortable opening up to us now,” Barone said. “We just want to help these kids and lead them in the right direction.”
Mentor Anna Picinich said that her student wouldn’t talk to her in the beginning but different activities helped break the ice, which help the child relax and open up. She also said she appreciates how her childhood friends have helped elementary school children create relationships that will carry them throughout their school careers.
“I just love going there,” mentor Jaak Chasse said. “Since we went there and had such a good time together there, us seeing kids that aren’t having such a good time and helping them really just makes us feel good.”