Anthony Parlato sat in a reclining chair at the Moriches Community Center on Thursday night looking at his cellphone.
He had texted almost all of the roughly 25 members of the center’s Peer Leadership group to remind them about the first meeting of the new year, and as the clock hit 7 p.m., he wondered who was going to make it.
“The beginning of the year is tough,” he said. “Everyone is still trying to work out their schedule and their school commitments.”
But a small portion of the dedicated group started to file in, explaining on behalf of their missing peers that there were sports games and late practices and outside obligations that night.
Sarah Volkmann, 15, a sophomore at Center Moriches High School, came in right from soccer practice, sat down on the floor and started her homework as Parlato, the group’s adviser and co-executive director of the community center, began tackling the agenda.
Despite their busy schedules, Parlato said, the kids in “peer” are an amazing bunch dedicated to making an impact in their community. The group helps the community center brainstorm and see its outreach projects to fruition. During meetings, the peer members also focus on themselves, discussing issues that arise in school and in the community and how they can solve them.
“School just started, there can’t be any issues yet, right?” Parlato asked. “Have there been any fights?”
“Not yet,” said Kelsey DeBatto, 14, a freshman at Center Moriches. “High school has been a lot calmer than I thought. I think this has been the easiest school transition.”
With the need for problem-solving at a minimum, the group focused their first meeting on their upcoming fundraising projects: bake sales, car washes, the annual Halloween “Pet Social,” and their newly conceived idea to create a one-night-only haunted house in the community center.
But planning aside, the group is a real asset to local teens, said Patti Albert, 46, of Center Moriches, who has sat in on more than 10 years of peer leadership meetings as both of her sons have gone through the group.
“I come almost every week,” she said. “I like to know what’s going on, too.”
She said she’s often been amazed at how much the teens open up to Parlato and the personal issues they are willing to discuss during the group.
“This gives the kids a place to go,” she said, “but also an opportunity to talk about different issues or concerns they might not want to talk about at home. They all help each other and come up with different perspectives on how to handle it.”
Ihsan Wahedi, 15, of Center Moriches, has been a part of the peer group for the past three years. He said he starting coming for something to do outside of school.
“We all kind of came here because it’s a chance to hang out and talk in a safe environment and a friendly zone,” he said.
Before closing the meeting with a traditional game of charades, Parlato reminded the group of some rules: talks are confidential, no gossiping.
“We’re not here to gossip,” DeBatto reassured him. “We just want to help.”