SOUTH PLAINFIELD - Student Resource Officer (SRO) Zach Melanson spoke with students in South Plainfield Middle School’s Peer Leadership and National Junior Honor Society (NJHS) about the importance of staying away from drugs, setting examples as leaders, and showing appreciation for those who protect them.  During a special after school presentation, Melanson warned of the dangers of going down the wrong path and what being a leader truly means. 

“As you move on with your life, you’re going to see a lot of things, do a lot of things, and one of the things you’re going to deal with a lot in your life are drugs,” Melanson said to the students.  “Speak up, voice yourself, and make the right choices.  Make sure you say ‘no’ to drugs because what you do now is going to carry on for the rest of your life.  Remember to make the right choices, it all comes back to being a leader.”

Melanson was chosen as the speaker because he had been a peer leader in school and understood the importance of the program. 

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“I understand what it takes to be in peer leadership with all the time and the effort involved,” Melanson said.  “It's important to the community and South Plainfield Schools.  I told the kids, I’m not a leader in the sense of being a supervisor, but we’re all leaders.  If somebody looks up to them or asks them a question, they’re leading their peer in the right direction.  Even if they don’t think of themselves as leaders, they can step out of their shells and take charge.  It’s only going to help down the road in life.”

“Events like this are relevant the students’ lives,” said Nicholas Deremiah, English teacher and Co-Advisor of the Middle School Peer Leadership Club.  “This is not just the prescribed health lesson that they get.  It’s another aspect of their day when they actually volunteer to hear the message rather than being forced to hear the message, and hopefully they spread the message.”  

Both NJHS and Peer Leadership stress the importance of service to the community and expressing appreciation for those who serve the community.

“Peer Leadership is an organization where students volunteer their time because they see themselves as being leaders among their peers,” Deremiah said. “We try to instill in them the values of giving back to the community and staying out of trouble.  We want them to make good choices and stay drug free.”  

“I’m happy to help people that are in need,” said Aniyah McKay, eighth grader.  “It’s great.  Being a part of peer leadership is a new experience for me. I enjoy it.  I learned a lot about how we help and who we help.  The people in South Plainfield aren’t very fortunate to have the things that others have, and we can help.  We also need to be grateful for everything that we do have.”  

NJHS members also attended the presentation.  Led by Middle School teachers, Co-Advisors Anna Kousoulis and Dara Sesser, the NJHS is composed of students who have been recognized as demonstrating excellence in the areas of scholarship, service, leadership, character, and citizenship.  

“The students of the National Junior Honor Society serve as role models in our school and inspire their peers to achieve excellence in the five qualities that serve as honorable standards for the society,” Kousoulis said.  “The Honor Society was invited to the event by the Peer Leaders to join in and listen to the guest speaker because both groups did service projects to honor the police officers last month.” 

South Plainfield implemented the SRO program in 2018.  SROs are sworn law enforcement officers responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools.  Melanson says he feels the program is a success.  

“I love what I do,” said Melanson.  “The fact that we can show police officers in a different aspect shows that we are just regular people.  We can impact the lives of the children here while they are in school.”  

“This is my first time coming to peer leadership and it was interesting,” said Catherine Pfeiffer, seventh grader.  “I learned a lot from the officer.” 

The SRO program is meant to not only offer students and staff a sense of safety, but to allow the officers to make a positive impression on the children’s lives.

“It’s been wonderful,” said Melanson.  “I think it’s absolutely making an impact with the kids.  We get a lot of good feedback from principals and parents because it’s a different aspect of policing here.  It’s nice to have kids come up to you and ask you questions.  It’s a different style because they don’t see you in the uniform, they see you in a relaxed uniform so you’re more approachable.” 

“I think it’s good for the kids to have that kind of relationship with the SRO officers in our building because they can feel more comfortable to ask questions if they ever need advise,” said Michele Rodriguez, English Teacher and Co-Advisor of the Middle School Peer Leadership Club.   

After Melanson finished his talk, students expressed their gratitude in a very special way.  

“We presented the officers with appreciation bags,” said Rodriguez.  “The students got really into putting them together and excited to share their appreciation for the officers in our town.  They wrote messages and decorated them.  I think they did a fabulous job.” 

Each appreciation bag included: a lifesaver because each officer is a lifesaver, a Starburst for the burst of energy they may occasionally need, a pack of gum because their unit always sticks together, Hershey kisses because they are loved by their community, a PayDay candy bar because they don’t do it for the money, an American Flag since they keep Americans safe,  and a personalized thank you note from a peer leader to express their gratitude. 

The NJHS also prepared a treat for the officers of South Plainfield.

“The National Junior Honor Society prepared homemade chocolate chip cookies as a thank you to the Student Resource officers at our school and to the South Plainfield Police Department,” Kousoulis said.  “Individual goodie bags were prepared for the Student Resource Officers and a tray of cookies was prepared for the Police Department.”

Teacher Joseph Blondo asked Melanson to convey the Middle School’s appreciation to the police for their service to the community.

One of the most important pillars of our society are people who are willing to put other people’s needs before their own needs and that is the essence of what public service is,” said Blondo.  “Being that these are the holidays, where we will be at home with our families. There will be a lot of people whose office is going to be the inside of a squad car or at the fire station.  Whenever you need them, you dial that number, and they come, no questions asked.  I just want to say in front of the entire group, thank you very much for what you do on a daily basis and all of your fellow officers.”  

Melanson humbly accepted the gifts on behalf of the South Plainfield Police Department.

“It’s what we chose to do,” Melanson said.  “I don’t complain about it.  I’ve worked every holiday, except for last year.  I love it.  I don’t need to be thanked, but I appreciate you thanking us and being appreciative of what we do.  We love doing it, and we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t.”  

Students left the presentation with a better understanding about their roles in the school and community as leaders.

“I learned that peer leadership helps people, and they thank the people that contribute to our lives,” said Ashwini Devaraj, seventh grade.  “It’s a good thing to contribute back to the community.  The officer told us that they appreciate whatever we do, and it’s nice to thank them by giving them these little things that remind them that we actually do care and appreciate what they’re doing.”

As students helped carry the gifts to the squad car, they left having learned important life lessons about leadership, making good decisions, service and gratitude.  

“It’s activities like this where we give back to the police and the community where the kids really shine and show their appreciation for all that first responders do this time of year in particular,” said Deremiah.  “The students are willing to give a lot of time, and sometimes even their own money, to help with fundraisers and certain events around town.  They really step up when they’re called upon.” 

“Just being able to get through to one child, means you’ve done your job, and I think we’ve been able to get through to many children through the SRO program,” said Melanson.  “I think it’s great, and we’re going to continue to do it.”