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Somerset Elementary celebrates 25 years of friendships
When you’re an elementary-age student, having a good friend in the same grade can change the way you feel about school.
Second graders at Somerset Elementary in Mendota Heights, however, are learning that a good friend who’s a bit older (sometimes more than 80 years) can change you for life.
On Nov. 22, second-grade students at Somerset met for the first time with the grownup counterparts who will mentor, help, play with and write to them through the upcoming school year as part of the school’s Special Pals in Fun Friendship program.
SPIFF pairs each second grader with an older adult volunteer who serves as a friend and partner through several school activities and outings throughout the school year (and often beyond). This year is especially important for SPIFF: not only is it the 25th anniversary, but the four second-grade classes totaling 99 students make it the biggest year in the program’s history.
Singing away shyness
To mark the occasion, school staff kicked off the program Nov. 22 with a friendship fair that drew special guests such as school Principal Sara Palodichuk, District Superintendent Nancy Allen-Mastro and Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.
A room packed with nearly 100 second graders is never dull, but the excitement was brought to a tipping point by one teacher, a microphone and a CD of sing-along songs. The teacher, Alex Messicci, is the one responsible for launching SPIFF 25 years ago, and as he strolled around the room chatting, laughing and holding out the microphone for any student up for a solo, it seemed evident his enthusiasm hasn’t dulled a bit over the years.
In a break between songs, Messicci explained to the students how his father first taught him the power of music and making friendships on family camping trips when Messicci was a child.
“In the evening, he would pull out his big brown suitcase and lift up his accordion and start playing around the campfire, and people started coming around,” Messicci said. “Strangers became friends under July skies, and that’s what we’re doing here today. So God bless my dad. It’s not exactly July skies, but there’s a lot of warmth in the room.”
Breath of fresh air
Despite SPIFF’s success — around 1,700 friendships over the course of the program — Messicci is quick to deflect attention from himself. Instead, he prefers to point out the contributions of the volunteers, or “pals.” The benefit of SPIFF, Messicci explained, is not just providing students with another friend: the age differences between pals and students offer a hidden wealth of educational value.
“It’s fun for the children, but it also gives them experience with someone from another generation,” Messicci said. “It’s like real-life history.”
For the students, however, getting to know the pals doesn’t feel like a homework assignment. For one student in Angela Brignac’s class, the highlight of meeting her pal Sandra Gonder Nov. 22 was the discovery they share a love of mystery stories. Sitting together in a corner of the classroom with an open book and an unsolved case, it hardly seemed possible the pair was engaged in something as potentially onerous as reading practice.
“At times, the four walls of the classroom can close in,” Messicci explained. “This breathes new air into it.”
For the volunteers, of course, the relationships are rewarding in a different way. Some have grandchildren the same age as their newly-assigned friends.
Others, such as Susan Lucio, get involved because they can see the benefit SPIFF had on their own children. Lucio’s daughter was in second grade at Somerset the year Messicci started SPIFF.
“He was a brand-new teacher just coming in,” Lucio recalled.
Her daughter, Alana Lucio, is now a teacher herself over at Garlough Elementary, and kept in touch with her SPIFF pal for years after.
“I really truly think the connection the children make with us and we make with them is really valuable,” Susan Lucio said. “They learn from us and we learn from them.”
Relationships that last well beyond the school year are not at all uncommon for SPIFF. Millie Gignac, a 93-year-old volunteer, still corresponds with the very first second grader she was paired with 13 years ago; that student is now in college pursuing a career as a pharmacist.
Gignac says she’ll continue to participate in SPIFF “as long as I can write (legibly).”
(Self-esteem boosts can be an added benefit of the program: when Gignac challenged her new friend Olivia Nunez to guess her age, Olivia hesitantly ventured, “30?”)
While the first day always seems to go by too quickly, SPIFF has a full slate of activities lined up for the year ahead, including holiday caroling, bowling, art classes and field trips. The enthusiasm that students, volunteers and teachers hold for the year ahead seems to emulate the trajectory of the program. For Messicci, 25 years of SPIFF have only made the program stronger and better-supported.
“The excitement builds through the years,” Messicci said. “Now it’s like a train going downhill, but we don’t want it to stop.”
Luke Reiter can be reached at email@example.com or at 651-748-7815.