Kids in the Middle learn to be on the front line of the community

By LISA CAPOBIANCO
STAFF WRITER
When seventh graders Morgan Desjardins and Ariana Arpin entered Chippens Hill Middle School, they felt inspired to join a program that would give them an opportunity to give back to the community while meeting new friends.
A United Way and community initiative that helps middle school students transition into high school and early adulthood, Kids in the Middle offers meaningful experiences by connecting them with caring adults in the community. All middle school students are Kids in the Middle, which is open to everyone in all five area schools, including Chippens Hill Middle School, West Bristol School, Eli Terry Jr. Middle School, Har-Bar Middle School, and the Middle School of Plainville.
From the time Morgan and Ariana joined KIM, they had transitioned well into middle school while learning the importance of volunteerism.
“Your first experience is scary, but once you do it, you meet more people and [middle school] gets easier,” said Morgan, recalling how nervous she felt entering middle school at first.
“As you go on, [joining KIM] helps you realize it’s a lot of fun,” said Ariana, adding how KIM helps students with good decision-making.
Donna Osuch, president and CPO of the United Way of West Central Connecticut, said the group originated based on national and local research about the high number of high school freshmen who received a grade of a “D” or an “F,” and students in focus groups who said they did not understand the concept of “community.”
Through the work of a committee made up of members from all walks of life, including pediatricians, middle school guidance counselors and principals, among others, KIM was born. As they broke off into four smaller groups representing different communities, committee members  reflected on the needs and assets of each community to help develop a KIM group for each town that United Way serves.
Allie Leake, Bristol KIM Coordinator for both Chippens Middle School and West Bristol School, began her role last November. From working the booths during the library’s Halloween and Easter events and running carnival games to volunteering at events that take place at Rockwell Park to ringing the bell for Salvation Army and playing Bingo with senior citizens at Countryside Manor, Leake said the students have enjoyed taking part in a variety of community service projects. This year, KIM at West Bristol launched “Wolf Month,” as a way to promote school spirit. Recently, students had an opportunity to interact with live wolves during a program that was tied into the curriculum.
“My real goal was just to have something for kids to look forward to at school,” said Leake, adding how the community service projects evolve based on the students’ interests and suggestions.
Last school year, students at both Chippens and West Bristol completed a total of 600 hours of community service, said Leake. Last year, about 130 students at Chippens and 60 to 70 students from West Bristol were in KIM. During the current school year, at least 100 sixth graders between West Bristol and Chippens Middle have joined KIM.
For Morgan and Ariana, helping children explore activities with children during the Imagine Nation’s Cardboard Challenge and taking a field trip to Winding Trails with other KIM students have served as some of their favorite activities so far. This year, they were looking forward to the Halloween Carnival and Parade at Rockwell Park and the Halloween Gala Library event held this past weekend.
Through their involvement in the community, Ariana and Morgan said one thing they have learned is clear: Be patient. Besides patience, becoming KIM members has played a role in their self-esteem.
“It has been a very good experience,” said Ariana. “It has made me a lot more confident.”
“I met a lot of older kids,” added Morgan. “All of my friends are from KIM.”
Osuch said the impact that KIM has made on students was evident over time. She said after the initiative’s implementation, area high schools reported a higher number of students requesting community service opportunities. She noted the story of one middle school boy who was “at risk of failure.” After the school asked a KIM coordinator to work with the boy, he became more engaged, and ultimately transformed from an introverted student to a more positive and happy student.
“He is happy in his skin, and he wasn’t before,” said Osuch, adding how KIM became a safe place for her own son. “It provides a safe place. [KIM students] step a little bit outside of themselves and grow as a person, and I think that helps them.”
Osuch added that KIM helps students who are not involved in any extracurricular activities or sports to become connected with their peers who are outgoing and involved.
“You’re seeing a mix of leadership, and kids who are quiet and shy,” said Osuch.
Leake added KIM serves as almost a “coming of age” experience for the students who are a part of the group, as they become role models in the community.
“I think it develops a lot of pride in the students,” said Leake, adding how KIM also helps the students develop skills and more independence.
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