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The joy of being a peer mentor at Bishop O'Connell High School

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Walk into the fifth period anatomy class this week at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington and you will see students engaged in learning about the nervous system. What you might not notice is senior Maura Leverone, who attends the class on a daily basis as a peer mentor, assisting junior Katie Finnegan to complete her homework. Leverone is one of 70 O’Connell students assisting peers in grade level or small group classes throughout the school.

I have changed tremendously working with my mentee, Henry. He’s taught me many things that apply to any situation. He’s one of the main reasons I want to attend school every day. ~ Senior Olivia Pope

O'Connell offers expanded services to students with cognitive and intellectual disabilities to give them an opportunity to have a Catholic education. “These peer mentors make our expanded services possible,” said Expanded Services Director Susan Rinaldi. “They rise into these roles of responsibility and bring their own creativity and innovation to the class.”

“It’s an extremely rewarding experience seeing things from a different perspective,” said Leverone. “There is nothing better than when you put a smile on their face or make them laugh. Katie is always the best part of my day.”

Junior Jackson Burnside is a peer mentor who has taken his mentorship to the next level. Inspired by his English teacher’s “gamified classroom” — which incorporates games and fun into active learning — Burnside developed similar games for students receiving expanded services. He created a variety of theme-based stations, with math facts ranging from easy to hard, to give students a one-of-a-kind experience.

For some students, the mentoring experience has had an important influence on their college or career plans. Senior Gage Maddy plans to study special education at college, so he can continue to help students like his mentees for the rest of his life. “I can affect the outcome of a kid’s day just by spending time with them and becoming friends with them,” he said.

His classmate Jack Murphy, who has been a peer mentor for two years, also intends to study special education next fall. His reason? “Because I can make a difference in someone’s life every day.”

Through its first four years, peer mentoring has had such a monumental impact on many students at O’Connell, and it continues to be a hallmark of the student experience.

“While mentors begin the year with a sincere desire to give to others, most soon agree that they are receiving something special in return,” said Rinaldi.

Olivia Pope, a senior peer mentor, sums up her experience: “I have changed tremendously working with my mentee, Henry. He’s taught me many things that apply to any situation. He’s one of the main reasons I want to attend school every day.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019