Every week, as many as 35 sixth-graders from Cordello Avenue Elementary School in Central Islip sit down with adult mentors to talk about their lives and glean advice about problems they may face in and out of school.
On Saturday, nearly half — some with their mentors — volunteered at a food pantry and soup kitchen at St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church in Brentwood for a lesson in giving to and serving others.
“It makes me happy to know we’re able to help people who don’t have things that most people have,” said Kimberly Larin, 11, after spending part of the morning spreading peanut butter on bread for sandwiches.
Saturday’s excursion taught the children about responsibility, selflessness and humility, said Kelli Pasha, who oversees the mentoring program at Cordello and is the nurse there. In addition to volunteering, kids collected some of the canned and boxed goods that were distributed.
Many of the young volunteers come from low-income families themselves. One girl said afterward that she and her mom used to come to the food pantry every Saturday and now go to another one, Pasha said. Other kids were moved by seeing families, some with babies, receiving food, Pasha said.
The children discovered that “even though you’re in a particular situation, you can still help other people,” said school Principal Brenda Jackson.
The program at Cordello is affiliated with the New York State Mentoring Program, which is in more than 25 schools on Long Island, said Diane Urso, regional coordinator of the program. The state trains people like Pasha to run the program and vets volunteers, she said.
Mentors arrive either at lunchtime or after school on Wednesdays, usually talking with one to three children at a time, Pasha said. Mentors are either employees at Cordello or Catholic Health Services, which allows some employees to leave their workplaces to mentor for 40 to 45 minutes and then return to their jobs, Pasha said.
Peggy Nixdorf, 82, director of pastoral care at Our Lady of Consolation Nursing & Rehabilitation Care Center in West Islip, said kids could “talk about whatever they want to talk about.” There also are discussions on topics such as peer pressure, bullying and vaping, she said.
Kimberly, one of Nixdorf’s mentees, says she enjoys talking to “Grandma Peggy” because “she has a lot of experience in the world and really good advice.”
“A lot of times kids prefer to talk to an adult that is not part of their home life,” Urso said.
The mentees are chosen through a survey given to all sixth-graders that gauge whether the children struggle academically, come from poor families, are socially isolated or have parents who work long hours and aren’t always around after school.
Ramona Alava, 68, a retired teacher from Ecuador who lives with her husband, son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren in Bay Shore, said her son and daughter-in-law didn’t earn enough money to pay for all of the family’s food. So each Saturday, Alava goes to St. Anne’s to pick up items collected by the nonprofit that runs the food pantry, Peanut Butter Gang/Hospitality Too.
The children volunteers, she said in Spanish, are “learning and realizing the needs of the people. They are growing up with the spirit of helping. They become responsible through sharing.”