Local mentors make sure Beyond School Walls program involving Lincoln Elementary students continued despite pandemic

Published on Friday, 1 May 2020 17:26
Written by Catherine Shen


NEW BRITAIN – When Beyond School Walls, a site-based youth mentoring program, was in danger of shutting down due to the coronavirus pandemic, local mentors were not going to let that happen.

“These are kids that we’ve built a relationship with and we didn’t want that to break because of the shutdown,” said Brad Palazzo, mentor and director of Community Impact at Comcast. “We want to make sure that they know we support and care about them, especially during times like this. So we moved our mentoring services online.”

Beyond School Walls is a collaboration between Comcast, Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters and Lincoln Elementary School. Every two weeks, 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students are bussed from the school to Comcast’s Western CT Regional Office in Berlin, where they would spend an hour and a half with Comcast employees who are also mentors. They would help with homework, play games or just have causal conversations. Since the program’s debut in 2008, more than 100 New Britain kids have benefitted from what the program offers.

“When the pandemic hit the country, we were at a crossroads on how to continue to work with the kids,” Palazzo said. “We immediately started discussions with Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, who we have a longstanding relationship with, to see how we can continue our mentoring and avoid shutting down the program.”

The solution was going virtual, which means organizing two sessions per week on Zoom where students can log on and have group chats with several mentors and their fellow classmates. Tara Gill, site-base coordinator and match support specialist for Nutmeg, said with most of the mentoring programs being focused on face-to-face interactions, they really had to pivot across the board and think outside of the box.

“Having the Zoom sessions is perfect because we can have a lot of mentors and mentees on at the same time, which means they can see their classmates and meet all the mentors,” said Gill, who pointed out that the mentors came up with several different ways to interact virtually, including playing scavenger hunts.

“We had the kids run around the house to find the things that we came up with then come back to show us, that’s been really fun. It also gives the parents a much-needed break while still keeping their kids engaged,” Gill said. The mentors also play word games and tell riddles during their sessions. “Not all games are educational, but we like the activities to keep them thinking while having fun at the same time.”

They had their first two Zoom sessions this week and Palazzo said the turnout was great.

“I got to see my mentee during both sessions so that was really nice,” he said. “What’s really great is you see the kids become comfortable on screen. At first, some are shyer than others, but then through the activities, they start to speak out more. On some level, the virtual situation is actually helping some of the kids connect more, which is fantastic.”

Gill agreed, stating not only are the mentees strengthened by the shutdown because it forced them to communicate better, it also got the mentors to think creatively.

“Everyone has just been super supportive in working with us, from Lincoln Elementary allowing access to the kids and Comcast being so generous with their time and energy,” Gill said. “It’s wonderful that we can still continue our services during the pandemic and we hope to keep going as long as it’s needed.”

Contact Catherine Shen at 860-801-5093 or cshen@centralctcommunications.com

Posted in New Britain Herald, New Britain on Friday, 1 May 2020 17:26. Updated: Friday, 1 May 2020 17:29.