Guardsmen spend lunch with elementary students

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Catharine Schmidt
  • 109th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Students are lined up outside the cafeteria, and you can feel their excitement. Maybe it's because today is pizza day. It could also be because they know summer vacation is right around the corner. But it's probably because they know there are some visitors waiting to spend lunchtime with them.

More than 40 men and women here have taken time out of their busy days to spend time with the students at Yates Elementary School in Schenectady. You can find most of these guardsmen at one of the lunch tables talking with the kids. Afterward, it's off to the playground for the guardsmen to get some good exercise, and for the kids to get another playmate.

Maj. Matt LeClair had contacted the school principal in the beginning of the school year about setting up a tutoring program.

"We already had a lot of tutoring programs, but what we really needed was people to be role models for the kids," said Yates principal Valarie Scott. "Positive role models are so critical. We're a school with high poverty, and we're a school where kids don't always see people doing the right thing, like being respectful ... and we're also a school where kids don't get listened to a lot. Some kids are very fortunate; they have lots of people who listen to them. Some kids have nobody who listens to them."

That's exactly what guardsmen have been doing - listening.

"We just strike up a conversation with them," said 1st Lt. Kelly Williams, a flyer with the 139th Airlift Squadron who's been mentoring at the school since September 2007. "Say they have Spiderman on their lunchbox, we ask 'Oh is he your favorite,' and before you know it, you're locked in conversation. So many of them are interested to talk to someone. ... We go from table to table to talk to as many as we can."

"I've helped out with the lunch program ... pouring some barbecue sauce in their tray, saying hi, sitting down with them to talk while they're eating lunch," said Senior Master Sgt. Christopher Tymula, of the 109th Mission Support Group's contracting office, who actually went to school at Yates Elementary. "A lot of times they lead the conversation by asking what I do. I'll ask them how school's going and what they like to do."

"I try to talk to them about things they are interested in (like) sports, music and other activities they do outside of school; really just about anything.," said Lt. Col. George Alston, the 109th Operations Group training manager. "The big thing to me is that they see and feel the presence of an adult who is interested in spending time with them and in what they have to say,"

"They get to spend time with somebody who listens one-on-one; they just sit and talk to them," said Principal Scott. "Just think how important that is; just to have somebody who opens your milk, listens to you and talks to you."

Stratton members haven't only been involved in just the mentoring program; other incentives for the kids have evolved as well.

One of the school's incentive programs is B-Bucks. Students receive these B-Bucks for good behavior, and get to spend them at a makeshift store in the school where tables are filled with toys they can choose from. Many of these toys have been donated from the base.

Earlier in the year, Col. Anthony German, 109th Airlift Wing commander, and some others, went to the school for a game of field hockey.

Lieutenant Williams worked with the kindergarten class in creating a book about penguins.

Recently, Colonel Alston organized a field trip to the base for more than 10 students who were rewarded for their good behavior. Students had lunch, saw the firehouse and got to go inside one of the LC-130s. They even got to challenge some guardsmen to a game of basketball.

And toward the end of the school year, some students even got to go to Build-A-Bear where "Chief Master Sgt. Yates" was created and is now displayed at the front of the school.

"There have been a lot of improvements in behavior (because of Stratton's participation), especially the B-Bucks incentive, the kids really look forward to it," said Tiffany Giardono, an instructional coach at Yates.

Principal Scott said she has also noticed a lot of behavior improvements since the mentoring began.

"Some of the kids who get positive referrals get them because they're turning their behavior around," she said. "One of the children who went on the field trip to the base wrote a two-page letter to his teacher that night. In it, he said things like, 'I see that I should be more responsible, I should have been a better student.'

"This is a child who had been in trouble a lot, so this was just incredible," she said. "This is the kind of impact the volunteers are having, because that's the kind of thing that we can't control. But (we need this) to happen in order to make academic progress. The bad behaviors need to go away for the academics to grow. That day, the difference had to be Stratton."

Colonel Alston said he has noticed changes since becoming a mentor.

"The big change I've seen is their comfort level with us," he said. "It is great to see the huge smiles and outreached arms when we walk into the lunchroom or onto the playground. As excited as all of the mentors are to visit Yates, the students are even more so."

"Seeing people in uniform, I think, has had a stronger impact on the kids," said Ms. Giardono. "I think it's more of a respect and curiosity."

"These students are a major investment in the future of Schenectady," Colonel Alston said. "When we help children, we don't just help the child; we help everyone in his or her family, their friends, their neighbors, really the entire community. Many of these particular children come from difficult circumstances, so the positive role models from the 109th serve as an even stronger influence in their lives. Today's children are tomorrow's leaders, and these future leaders are in our own backyard."

The mentoring program will continue next year, and Principal Scott said she hopes even more programs evolve with that. A trip to the VA is already planned for November.

And volunteers are always needed. "A lot of us are flyers, so we're not here a lot, and that's too bad because the kids really deserve someone there at least every week," Lieutenant Williams said.

"There is a great sense of satisfaction that what we do really makes a difference in these children's lives," Colonel Alston said. "It's also a nice chance to take a break from the office and have fun playing in the middle of the day. ... This is an important program that provides great personal rewards for the children and mentors alike."

"The kids need (this program)," Sergeant Tymula said. "A lot of them are probably coming from families that have tough times. I've heard a lot of these students really need some direction, some friends just to talk to; just someone to pay attention to them and have a good time with.

"The kids enjoy anyone's company," he said. "They want to tell you stories, they want to hear stories from you. It's just a good feeling."