Meet This Group Of Fantastic Friends!

They might be big - they might be little - but they are all friends.

What's the definition of a friend?  Dictionary.com defines it as a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard, who gives assistance, and who is on good terms with another.

At the gathering of the Fantastic Friends group every Friday afternoon, director Marie Pinette says the kids, who range in age from Kindergarten to high school are much more than "friends."

"They are mentors and mentees, they are helpers," says Pinette. "The older kids act as another adult and help the younger kids build relationships."

The Fantastic Friends program, run by Pinette of Clinton Youth & Family Service Bureau, Kristin Brooks of the First Selectman's Task Force and two parent volunteers, serves as a casual learning and social environment pairing kids at the high school level with younger children.  They spend every Friday afternoon playing games inside and outside, making crafts, talking and socializing, and just being together.

The program runs in four cycles, said Pinette, eight weeks each in the fall, winter and spring, and morphs into the "Summer Partners" program in the summer.

The program is financed by a small grant given to Clinton Youth & Family Service.

There are about 18 high school mentors for about 23 K-8 kids.

"Everyone chips in," says Pinette. "Most are assigned one on one, but we have sixth graders who are "helpers" with snacks, games and substituting if one of the high school kids is unavailable. They have really jelled together as a team."

They gather each Friday at 2:30pm in the large conference room behind the superintendent of school's wing at the Joel Elementary School. The high school students are first to arrive and immediately begin clearing the space of excess tables and chairs.

There's no need to announce when the little kids come in as you witness a flash of colors running into the room to meet up with their friends.

Volunteer mother Peg Abbott says her son, Darren, six years old, wakes up every Friday morning and says "It's Fantastic Friends day!"

His high school buddy and mentor is Alex Swett.

"It's Alex this and Alex that all week long at our house," says Abbott with a smile.

She and her husband know the special sentence that keeps little Darren on track if he's not obeying them.

"We'll tell Alex," is all they have to say and Darren straightens out immediately.

Let's hear from some of the high school Fantastic Friends mentors:

Meagan Quinn, 9th grade

This is Meagan's first year as a Fantastic Friend, but she's not the only one in her family with the title. Her older sister Erin, a junior, is also a Fantastic Friend and a Peer Advocate.

"I love the connection to the little kids and helping out in the community," says Meagan. "They really appreciate it and they are adorable!"

Meagan says playing Barbies is still very popular as are Bionicles by Lego.

"We go outside, we make origami, we play lots of Barbies," she adds. "Everything is so warm and comfortable."

Meagan has witnessed some real "branching out" of kids who were once very shy.

"I look forward to it every Friday," she says.

Meagan plans to study to become a family and child therapist. Her sister wants to be a social worker.

Sam Allen, 10th grade

Sam has been told by everyone in the group that he's pretty much "not allowed to leave" the program.

"There are about 100,000 things here to do so I guess I have to stay," he jokes.

Since Sam is about the tallest one in the room, he's the first person everyone looks to when they need something up high in the cabinet.

"My favorite part of the day is all about what the little kids say," he says. "I feel needed here and I know how to fold paper into origami shapes."

Sam plans to study science and biology and maybe write a book about sayings that "come out of nowhere."

Emily Maertz, 10th grade

This is Emily's second year as a mentor in the Fantastic Friends and Summer Partners programs.

Emily is "so happy to see the little ones" each Friday and has noticed a big difference in many of them.

She says she has seen a remarkable change in the very shy younger kids. They have gone from almost not talking at all to going around the room asking others if they would play or do something with them.

"In the past, they would have asked me to do it," says Emily.

Emily plans to study speech pathology in college.


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