‘A sense of Christian leadership’ spans ages in Anoka

| January 27, 2015 | 0 Comments
Elijah Short, right, a sixth-grader at St. Stephen School in Anoka, helps his kindergarten buddy Ajim Tubuo work on an art project for religion class as part of the school’s Disciples and Friends program. Dave Hrbacek/ The Catholic Spirit

Elijah Short, right, a sixth-grader at St. Stephen School in Anoka, helps his kindergarten buddy Ajim Tubuo work on an art project for religion class as part of the school’s Disciples and Friends program. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A handful of young students at St. Stephen School in Anoka worked feverishly on their religion drawings.

As they struggled to navigate the paper with their colored pencils, help arrived — not from their teachers, but from their older “buddies.”

The smiles on the youngsters’ faces indicated they’re accustomed to such gestures of kindness from older students.

That’s the way things work at this Catholic elementary school. A program called Disciples and Friends, started about 25 years ago, pairs students in kindergarten, first and second grade with students in sixth, seventh and eighth grade. Each younger student has an older buddy and spends time with him or her throughout the school year.

“It’s not just teaching the curriculum in our school, but building the relationship and modeling what a big kid should do for and with these little kids,” said principal Becky Gustafson, now in her 11th year at the school. “The relationship between the students is fun to see, fun to watch grow. They will say hello to each other in the hallway. . . . They go to Mass on Wednesday mornings [together], so they’re Mass buddies as well. Our middle schooler will sit next to and sing the songs and teach the kindergartners what they should be doing during Mass.”

School can be an intimidating place for younger students, and having an older friend makes a big difference.

“When I was little, I was super shy, and so I was super afraid of the big kids,” said eighth-grader Alysa Thieschafer, who has attended the school since kindergarten and has both had an older buddy and been one herself. “But, when we had our buddies, I feel like I got to know them, and so it was really cool.”

One of the fun parts is gift exchanges that take place right before Christmas. Students aren’t required to give presents to their buddies, but it happens routinely.

Gustafson witnessed one such occasion last month.

“I saw a sixth-grader bring a gift,” Gustafson said. “She made a card and a present for her kindergarten friend. She just walked right into the classroom and presented the gift. And, the smile on that little kindergartner was amazing. She was just so proud to receive a gift. . . . The love in her eyes and the excitement to have a gift from a big kid was pretty precious to see.”

Not only do youngsters remember such kind acts for years afterward, but it motivates them to do the same thing when they get older.

“It made me feel important,” said eighth-grader Thomas DeLapp of the treatment he received from his older buddies when he was younger. “Now, I like to maintain that same relationship with my buddies.”

He added that he still waves to buddies from past years.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “I always try to make them feel super welcome — with all the big kids, instead of just me. I try to introduce them to others and make them feel good.”

Hopefully, the impact of the program will stretch beyond their years at St. Stephen, said religion teacher Hannah Berchem, who oversees much of the formal activities between the younger and older students.

“One of the things we hope to have our eighth-graders leave with is a sense of Christian leadership,” Berchem said. “This gives them a huge opportunity to practice their leadership skills, working with and helping their younger buddies learn and grow.”

The final event in the program comes when the eighth-graders are preparing to graduate in the spring. It’s a proud moment for them, their teachers and their principal.

There are a few tears that come along with it.

“When our eighth-graders graduate from here, we have a candle-passing ceremony,” Gustafson said. “It’s the eighth-graders’ last hurrah. They pass on the candle of leadership to the seventh grade. After the candle-passing ceremony, we say goodbye to our eighth-graders, and my little friends are sobbing because they’ll miss their disciple friend.”

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Category: Catholic Schools Week