Mahopac Middle Schoolers Have Each Other’s Backs

Ian Hockley poses with some of the Wingman teacher champions. From left, Melissa Nyikos, Jenifer Maloney, Christine McNeill, Hockley, Ginny Gertling and Carol Polimino Credits: Bob Dumas
MMS sixth graders get pumped up at Eddie Slowikowski’s motovational talks. Credits: Bob Dumas
Slowikowski tells the students about how he used to dream of being an Olympic gold medalist. Credits: Bob Dumas
Wingman student leaders take the stage to deliver their messages. Credits: Bob Dumas

MAHOPAC, N.Y.— On Dec. 14, 2012, Ian Hockley’s life changed forever. His son, Dylan, was one of the 20 children who lost their lives in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Not wanting his son’s death to be in vain, Hockley resigned from his position with IBM and created Dylan’s Wings of Change, a foundation with a mission to help kids with autism reach their full potential.

A spin-off of Dylan’s Wings of Change is the  Wingman youth leadership program, which aims to inspire all children to create an inclusive community in their schools and clubs. Last year, Mahopac Middle School became the first school outside of Connecticut to adopt the Wingman program. Last week, the school held a Wingman assembly and presentation to kickstart its second year and so far the results have been astounding.

All three grades at MMS school—sixth, seventh and eighth—were presented with a program by motivational speaker Eddie Slowikowski who sent them a powerful message about how they can make a difference with one small choice or action at a time.

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“I met Eddie three years ago at a conference—he was talking to high schoolers,” Hockley said. “I loved his message. I asked him if he could come help us with our program when we were ready and he said yes. He has the ability to connect with any age group and give them the message that what’s inside them is special and unique and they need to listen to that voice that says, ‘You can do it and you can be the best you can be.’ ”

MMS principal Tom Cozzacrea said the students have embraced the message.

“One seventh-grade student told me it was the first assembly he’s ever attended that was worthwhile,” he said.

Jenifer Maloney, a seventh-grade teacher at MMS and a “teacher champion” for the Wingman program, said she’s seen similar reactions to Slowikowski’s performance.

“One little girl was worried she wouldn’t have enough time [to get involved in Wingman], but after she saw Eddie’s performance, she was like, ‘Please, can I come back? I want to be part of this!’ ” she said.

Christine McNeill, an MMS eighth-grade teacher, brought Wingman to the school two years ago.

“My daughter is in New Fairfield [schools] and they have been doing Wingman for a couple of years,” she said. “She is a Wingman leader. I saw the impact it had in the schools and with my daughter. I just thought it was a wonderful program and thought let’s bring it to Mahopac.”

Hockley said his foundation doesn’t actively seek out other school’s to take on the Wingman program but is always willing to get them involved if they ask.

“We love hearing from other schools that hear about it in the media or from other parents or teachers and they look at what they’re doing in the field of social and emotional learning and decide it’s a good fit for them,” he said. “We never try to sell it and say what we have is right for them. We want them to see that this is a good fit and they can adapt it to what is right for them.”

Maloney said the school already has the CARES program, but that is mostly about teachers looking out for others; Wingman is kids looking out for kids.

“It’s the students recognizing, hey, you did a great thing, like a student sitting by themselves and they go and sit by them and smile, make them have a better day,” she said.

McNeill said the ideas of caring and empathy and taught by the students themselves based on ideas they’ve come up in collaboration with the teachers.

“We have about 30 or 40 Wingman student leaders,” she explained. “Those leaders will meet the teacher champions and we will work on lessons that they will bring into the classroom,” she said. “We will train the kids based on what they are telling us the school needs. Last year, our theme was empathy. We did lessons for the classrooms and they presented them to their peers. They also fostered Mix It Up Day at lunch. They are the ones who volunteer and create the posters for the building and spread the word. For all these activities that promote kindness in our building, [the students] are the voice. They get everyone pumped up for it.”

Hockley said Wingman is not one-size-fits-all. Each school can customize it.

“The program doesn’t say you need to do X, Y or Z. It’s not a set curriculum,” he said. “So, if schools want to focus on bullying because they have a problem, they can. Schools that don’t have that problem don’t want to go through that, so they focus on things like empathy, courage, stress management. They take it to where they want to go.”

McNeill said it was the MMS students who have developed the program’s themes in its first two years.

“Through the training that we had last year when Ian came and brought trainers in, we did team-building for our Wingmen,” she said. “They listed the things they wanted to see happen in the middle school, positive behaviors. From that we came up with our theme for this year: Celebrating Similarities, Honoring Differences.”

And the program continues to grow. Wingman volunteers have more than doubled.

“The first year we asked for volunteers, we had kids sign up because they didn’t want to have to do silent reading during silent reading time,” McNeill said. “But after that, it wasn’t about silent reading. It was, ‘Can I do it again next year and I also have a friend who wants to do it.’ We had 30 kids last year and we have 70 who want to do it this year.”

Carol Polimino, a sixth-grade special ed teacher, said her students are particularly appreciative of Wingman.

“Special ed kids, especially in a middle school environment, feel like they’re different and are not part of a group,” she said. “This program, this assembly, shows them that they are part of a group. It’s OK to be different and that actually everybody is different in some way. It makes them feel better about it.

“We actually have some special ed students who are Wingmen,” he added. “One boy, in particular, is just shining because of it. It has made him realize that he has gifts to offer other than academics. And that is so important to a special ed student; that’s where they struggle and this program helps them shine.”

Polimino said she believes the program has helped cut down on special ed kids being bullied.

“The special ed students know the Wingmen; they see the purple shirts and know those students are sticking up for them,” she said. “They have their backs. It makes them feel great.  Now they can have an upperclassman who is a friend.”

In Slowikowski’s presentation, he shares stories about helping and reaching out—doing good in the world. Hockley said it’s part of a mindset to get kids to be Wingmen for life.

“There is a focus on sharing their stories because then they are learning about each other,” he said. “[Slowikowski] shared some stories that generate some thoughts and emotions and inspire a lot of the activities [the students] will do. They will share about themselves and that’s not always easy for a middle schooler to do. But once you start them on that journey and they learn about each other, that’s where they get the connection and they start being accepting of each other.”

Hockley said he believes Dylan would have approved of the Wingman program and its ability to spread happiness.

“Dylan had autism but I don’t define him as that. I just describe him as a shy, quiet little boy, the happiest little boy,” Hockley said. “He just wanted to be happy. He hated being around people who didn’t want to be happy. He couldn’t comprehend the world the way most people do. He saw it very simply as being happy or not being happy. So, seeing this going on and seeing people being happy would have just carried him away.”

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