Sciortino, a seventh and eighth grade technology teacher who has been at Weehawken High School for eight years now, has been involved with Peer Leadership for the last six years.
This year alone, the 42 students in the program have participated in many activities geared toward serving the community, helping those less fortunate than themselves, and realizing the impact they can have on the world around them.
"I think what's most important is that they have a greater appreciation for what they have and the effort that they make," said Sciortino. "Even if it's the smallest effort, it makes a difference."
Every little bit counts
Throughout the school year, members volunteered as childcare providers for the Webster School PTPA meetings, babysitting for parents who would not be able to attend the meetings otherwise.
Sciortino says that the holiday Peer Leadership efforts are particularly productive and meaningful for the kids.
"They do a lot of good for the community," Sciortino explained, adding, "They sold $300 in candy grams - that was pretty huge." The candy gram funds raised were donated to the United Way.
Kiani Mendez, Peer Leadership president, discussed other holiday efforts mobilized by the dedicated Peer Leadership students:
"During the holiday drive, we ran a Toys for Tots drive, in which we collected new toys for kids not fortunate enough to receive any during Christmas. We also had Project Homeless, where we collected brand new thermal wear and used clothes for homeless people in Hudson County. We also ran a drive where we collected cans of food for homeless people."
This was the first year they worked with the Hudson County Alliance to End Homelessness (HCAEH), which was suggested by Superintendent of Schools Kevin McLellan.
Sciortino also said that the group promoted denim day, where teachers and faculty paid $5 each for the privilege of wearing jeans to work.
Katherine Veras was a Peer Leadership member all four years of high school, and the accomplishment that stood out for her most was leading the Hudson Cradle effort in Jersey City her senior year. The charity helps care for babies born with addictions, such as heroin or those suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
Veronica Nuñez, Peer Leadership vice president, was particularly proud of the school year's last Peer Leadership activity, joining the New Jersey Elks on their Walk Out on Drugs in May. The walkathon helps create drug awareness. Lisa Rovito, drug awareness chairman for the Weehawken Elks, said she was happy to see the students take an active role in the event.
Nuñez described the program's contribution: "During the Walk Out on Drugs, Peer members invited anyone they knew and made signs to come support the walk, and I can happily say, it was a great success!"
Ariana Vizhnay hopes to continue the initiative she spearheaded in Weehawken when she attends college this fall at St. Elizabeth College at Covent Station.
"One of my greatest ideas and accomplishments came when I brought forward the idea of World Vision, which is a program for sponsoring a child in need from a third world country," said Vizhnay.
Sciortino explains that the students learned a lot about the children and families in third world countries from this newly adopted Peer Leadership cause, including that "$30 or $35 will provide them with water, pencils, and help educate them about AIDS."
Even though Sciortino is an advisor to the students in the program, she says that a lot of ideas come directly from the students and their own research and desire to help others.
In addition to the students who give so much of their own time, research, ideas, and hard work, she credits Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, Weehawken High Principal Peter Oliveri, advisor to the seventh and eighth grade members Ed Monahan, program Director Cathy Campen, and the school's teachers and faculty with supporting the Peer Leadership program and helping to make its endeavors a source of pride for the students.
Students express their pride
Outside of school, Kiani Mendez divides her time between a part-time job as a dental assistant and the program, and she says that volunteering has inspired her to consider a career working for nonprofit organizations.
"PL is my favorite extra-curricular activity," said Mendez, "because volunteering has always given me a great sense of accomplishment."
Veronica Nuñez, Peer Leadership vice president, says, "Overall, Peer Leadership is not about how much we get done, or how much we do, but how we feel at the end of the day. I'm not going to say that how much we get done does not matter, but how we feel is more important. I know that at the end of each day after volunteering, I get an amazing feeling inside because I know that with what I did. I am a step closer to changing the world."
Jennifer Alfonso, Peer Leadership's executive secretary, who will be a senior next year, explained how the program also expanded her social and global perspective:
"In many ways, Peer Leadership helped me realize many things, such as the constant need to help the less fortunate people, the crucial need for people who can make a difference to [actually] make that difference, and the responsibility as a peer leader, to be a leader not just in my community, but in the world."
Karol Aguilar, another Peer Leadership member, is eager to get back to the program when the school year begins this fall. "Next year, I want to dedicate even more time, because it is such a great feeling to help others."
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