SOMERS, N.Y. - Once a week, Somers middle and intermediate school students gather after school to do typical kid stuff: they do puzzles, play board games or toss a ball around outside. But their partners aren’t typical playmates —they’re adults.

The brainchild of Superintendent Dr. Raymond Blanch, the TEAM Tuskers mentoring program, an acronym for together, energized and motivated, is just one of the many activities designed to support students’ social-emotional wellness throughout their academic journey.

Under the auspices of The Whole Child Coalition, a “think-tank” established five years ago to address students’ needs outside the curriculum, TEAM Tuskers was designed in 2012 to create connections between adults from the community and students.

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Through playing games, doing homework or simply talking, Midge Miller, SMS coordinator of TEAM Tuskers, said students hopefully feel supported through an additional adult presence in their life.

“Research shows that having multiple adults in your life, even outside of your family, is a good thing for kids,” she said.

Since the idea was launched in 2013, the number of mentors has grown from six to 40. Most are retired volunteers from the community looking to contribute their time to a valuable cause. Miller said they go through a lengthy screening process, including an FBI background check, and are offered several trainings throughout the year.

“What we look for is somebody who’s really interested in helping a child grow in today’s world,” she said. “Life is tough these days, so we’re looking for adults who are willing to spend time with them, listen to them and help them with [their social lives] if they need it.”

Along with the physical growth of the program, its success is evident in other ways, she said, such as mentors that return year after year.

Christina Collura and her mentee, seventh-grade student Angeleighna Piccorelli, have been paired up for two years now and are still going strong. Collura joined the program after her husband expressed an interest in it and she said she has found it rewarding.

“It worked out I couldn’t have asked for a better experience,” Collura said. “I have a lovely, lovely young lady and I’m hoping to see her through to the high school.”

Piccorelli heard of the program through a friend and decided to try it. She said she enjoys spending time doing crafts and puzzles with her mentor and she plans to continue the program.

SMS hosted an after-school party for the program Thursday, Jan. 19, in honor of National Mentoring Month. Blanch read a parable about an old man who happens upon a younger man throwing washed-up jellyfish back into the ocean. When the old man says the effort is too minimal to make a difference, the young man responds that it makes a difference to the ones that get thrown back in. Mentors were given pins and a copy of the story.

“You make a difference, be it one at a time or a group at a time,” Blanch said. “Thanks for making a difference to our kids.”

Mentor Ken Benjamin moved to Somers last year and joined the program as a way to get involved in the community. Benjamin worked for years with the Boys’ Club of New York, a national organization of local chapters which provide after-school programs for young people to develop character and focus on education. Benjamin said the key to successful mentoring is to stay confident in oneself, lead by example and to recognize that a mentor might never witness the fruits of their labor first-hand.

“You’re providing character and guidance, but my mentee is 10 years old. The question is: What will he do when he’s 20, 21 or 22?” Benjamin said. “Will he know the rewards of appropriate behavior or will he make a bad choice? That’s a decision you’re not there for, but you help to influence along the way.”

Benjamin’s mentee, sixth grader Dalton Brown, said he enjoys their time together playing chess. He even got a chess set for Christmas this year. Benjamin reports that he has seen an improvement in his skill. Brown is also involved in other after-school programs, such as wrestling, which goes against the image Miller said some parents have in mind when they learn of the program.

Some parents, Miller said, avoid their child’s involvement with the program because of the stigma that is often attached to extra emotional support, or the implication that there is something “wrong” with a child who participates. In fact, she said, most of the students who participate perform very well academically and that the light support offered by the program isn’t intended for those who are struggling with more serious issues.

Stephanie Kurchack, sixth-grade counselor and TEAM Tuskers liaison for SIS, said there are many other programs in place for those students that might need additional support. Kurchack said she has seen the district’s focus on mindfulness paying off in the students she works with from other more intensive programs, to daily counseling sessions and even in a recently started yoga club. She and Blanch agree that the emphasis is important and that the district will continue to offer that support to its students, citing better school attendance and higher graduation rates.

“It’s been wonderful to see,” Blanch said. “You start this conceptualist idea and then [the groups and programs] seem random, but really they’re not. It all kind of ties in; you step back and there’s this beautiful view of working on kids’ social-emotional wellness, making sure their heart and their head are connected.”

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