For high school seniors, their final school year can be an emotional experience. It is filled with reflections upon special memories and saying goodbye to classmates and teachers.
But this year, before graduating from Cheshire High School in June, a group of 25 students is working to help a younger generation in their hometown and also leave a legacy of community service.
In taking the Peer Health Educators elective course under the tutelage of coach and physical education teacher Dan Lee, CHS seniors are organizing events and activities based around leadership.
“Personally, I haven’t experienced anything so student-driven,” said student Lindsey Abramson. “It is a testament to the program that Coach Lee has created. I couldn’t think of a better person to run this class. Mr. Lee is so well respected in our community.”
During the school year, the seniors have had the opportunity to work with elementary schools in town. After receiving information from principals, the peer health educators tailor lessons about kindness and leadership for the four schools.
Last fall, for kindness week, a group went to Chapman to speak to fourth through sixth graders.
“We talked about everyday leadership,” said Abramson. “You take the actions of being kind, like showing integrity.”
This year, the peer health educators have picked up with their kindness lesson tour that will include four visits to Norton School, along with trips to Doolittle, Highland, and Chapman Schools. On Jan. 23, students will attend a community meeting with Highland fourth through sixth graders.
“It’s amazing to work with them. They are such great kids,” said Abramson. “It’s cool that we get to have a big impact on them.”
Along with crafting lessons, peer health educators have also partnered with the CHS Best Buddies program to make recess trips to elementary schools on Thursdays and Fridays. Students enjoy surprising boys and girls and joining them for activities.
“They listen to every word you say,” said Ava Pulisciano, whose older brother Ricky and sister Mia both previously served as peer health educators. “They (the students) are locked in on you, even though you are not a teacher or an adult. It is nice to see that they really care.”
At CHS, the students additionally work with juniors on post-high school planning.
“It is about teaching the value of community service and leadership,” stated Lee.
In a highly-anticipated event, Cheshire students will participate in the Penguin Plunge on Sunday, Feb. 9. For this event, participants run into the water together at Winding Trails in Farmington.
“We receive support from the administration,” said Lee. “(Athletic Director) Steve Trifone and Principal (Dr. Mary) Gadd have gone into the water with us.”
In the past, CHS students have received awards for everything from the spirit they exude at the event to their costumes. After fundraising to register for the Plunge, peer health educators will split proceeds between Connecticut Special Olympics and the CHS Unified Basketball Tournament.
“I’m super-excited for that experience,” stated Abramson. “I know that the water will be really chilly, but it (the event) is for a great cause.”
CHS seniors have already started planning for the Unified Basketball Tournament on March 11. Begun approximately seven years ago by a former peer health educator, Cheshire students and teams from area schools play games in the East and West Gyms.
In Unified Sports, students team up with classmates who have mental and/or physical disabilities.
“The students plan the games, reach out to coaches, make t-shirt designs, and set up food for the event,” explained Lee.
Peer health educators also play a key role in organizing Excellence in Leadership Conferences at the high school, middle school, and elementary school levels. For the last eight years at CHS, Cheshire has brought students from neighboring towns to participate in activities and panel discussions.
Lee expects that 375 leaders will attend this year’s event, which is scheduled to be held on April 21 or April 22.
“Our students have already reached out to schools about the event,” said Lee.
Along with having breakfast and lunch, students will work on team building in the Leadership Expo in the West Gym.
“We put students in groupings where they won’t be with anyone from their school, so they can meet new people,” explained Lee. “Our focus is everyday leadership. We want them to take that information back to their schools.”
Kevin Nathan from NBC CT WVIT-TV Channel 30 traditionally leads a panel discussion on leadership. At the event, scholarships will be handed out to CHS and Berlin High School students and more.
“At the end, 75 Cheshire students, mostly juniors, will come to the auditorium to talk about the events for next year,” stated Lee.
With the Ryan T. Lee Memorial Foundation sponsoring the event, the program has personal significance to Lee. Back in 2011, his son Ryan, at age 19, was struck by a taxi cab in New York City and died from his injuries. In his memory, family and friends helped create the foundation to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
Over the last nine years, the foundation has raised $375,000 for more than 60 college scholarships, collected food and money for those less fortunate, and started leadership initiatives impacting students in local towns.
“The foundation is about giving back to others and it is great to be a part of that,” Pulisciano said.
Pulisciano credits Lee for empowering her to take on a leadership role with the Student Leadership Advisory Council (SLAC) last year. Two boys and two girls from each grade were picked to serve in the program.
“I found that I have a passion for leadership,” recalled Pulisciano. “As students, we do our (SLAC and peer health) projects alone, but he (Lee) does a lot of administrative stuff and pushes us to do a lot of things for others.”
Pulisciano is currently planning the first Excellence in Leadership Conference for elementary students. Last year, she teamed with 2019 CHS graduate Ryan Cyr to create a plan through SLAC and then present it to Gadd.
“It will be more activity-based than the other conferences,” said Pulisciano. “We can’t have as many lectures as on the high school level.”
Paige Remillard started an Excellence in Leadership Conference for middle school students in 2019 and, even though she graduated last June, she is still planning this year’s event while at Pennsylvania State University.
“It says a lot about Cheshire High School that the students don’t forget where they came from,” stated Lee. “Students like to come back and see if what they started is still here.”