Lunch mentors making a difference in elementary schools

St. Mary Catholic senior honored for service to Best Friends program

NEENAH — Giving a small amount of one’s time can make a big difference. Just ask Alex Rosiejka, a senior at St. Mary Catholic High School, who serves as a mentor for Best Friends of Neenah-Menasha. Over the past three years, Rosiejka has met with a student at a Neenah elementary school for a half hour over his lunch period, once a week.

“The two developed good rapport and the influence on the student was significant,” said program director Patti Houlihan. “Alex is very mature for his age and handled a very tough situation this past school year. He was very empathetic to his student and wanted to do whatever he could to help him be a better person. It was refreshing to see him truly care about his student and to see him bring a smile to the student’s face.”

St. Mary Catholic High School senior Alex Rosiejka was named High School Lunch Mentor of the Year by Best Friends of Neenah-Menasha. Pictured with Rosiejka is program director Patti Houlihan. (Submitted Photo | For The Compass)

The elementary school student was suspended from school for a couple days due to the incident. When he returned, Rosiejka asked his young friend for an apology, which he received.

“He did look Alex in the eye and said ‘I’m sorry.’ I thought that was such a neat thing,” said Houlihan. “That reflects on Alex. He respects Alex and didn’t want to lose him as a mentor and friend.”

The student was allowed to continue in the lunch mentoring program, but restrictions applied.

“We had to go to a special room in the principal’s office to play games,” explained Rosiejka, who also serves as a D.A.R.E. mentor. “We couldn’t go outside for a couple weeks. I tried to draw out information to see why he behaved like he did.”

Rosiejka’s handling of the situation and his contributions to the program earned him the honor of High School Lunch Mentor of the Year by Best Friends. He is one of approximately 90 St. Mary students currently involved in the program. St. Mary has partnered with Best Friends since 2003.

“We started with 37 students,” explained Houlihan, a St. Mary alum. “Last year we had 99, almost a third of the school. It’s a club now that students can join. This year we have about 60 to 70 kids. We have 20 (grade 9) kids waiting to do it.”

Neenah High School and Menasha High School students partner with Best Friends for afterschool programs. The lunch mentoring program is served only by St. Mary students. The teens serve four elementary schools: Spring Road, Taft and Clayton of the Neenah Joint School District and St. Mary Elementary in Menasha. The St. Mary Elementary students are bused to the high school. The mentors visit the other three schools.
Counselors at the elementary schools select the children for the mentoring program.

“It’s not necessarily kids from dysfunctional families,” said Houlihan. “It could be someone who struggles with self-esteem or somebody who just needs some extra support. Some have more behavior problems than others.”

The high school students go through an orientation process and screenings, including interviews and background checks. No background check details are given because the teens are not adults yet.

“The police will say, ‘We can’t tell you anything, but there is an issue,’” explained Houlihan. “We’ve never had that with a student from St. Mary.”

Goals for the mentors are simple, including encouraging their young friends to do well in school and help them build self-esteem. Houlihan asks the mentors to spend the first five to 10 minutes in conversation before engaging in games or playground activities.

Rosiejka said the growth he has witnessed in his elementary school friend is rewarding.
“He has certainly come a long way,” he said. “Since (last year’s incident), he is so much more mature. He is out there at recess helping the other kids. It’s kind of amazing.

“A lot of these kids come from different paths,” he added. “I believe it was during my sophomore year … I asked him what he got for Christmas and he said, ‘nothing.’ That is not something I can relate to. I have definitely learned a lot from talking with him.”

Rosiejka plans to pursue a career as a physician and is interested in pediatrics, so he enjoys opportunities to help young people. He is interested in serving as a mentor in college.

“I’m hoping they mentor in the future,” said Houlihan. “I’m hoping that we are instilling in these kids that it’s important to be there for somebody; if not mentoring, doing other things.”

Rosiejka encourages other St. Mary students to join the club. In addition to helping the elementary students, it’s fun, he said.

“It’s almost like you get to be at recess again,” he said. “It’s something I haven’t had since elementary school.”