Students at Helen Keller Middle School in Easton are about to launch a program that aims to enrich the school climate by enhancing the atmosphere of empathy and inclusion.
The Wingman program was launched in conjunction with the Connecticut Association of Schools as part of Dylan’s Wings of Change, an organization founded by the parents of Dylan Hockley, a 6-year-old victim of the Sandy Hook shooting.
Dylan was a child with autism, and Nicole and Ian Hockley started Dylan’s Wings of Change in memory of him as a way of helping children with autism.
The Wingman program moves in a slightly different direction, focusing on elementary and middle schools and aiming “to create a climate where kindness is non-negotiable,” said Annie Mohr, Helen Keller’s assistant principal and the program’s co-leader.
Mohr and co-leader Tim Sather, a school counselor, met with Ian Hockley many times during the planning phase.
“He is infectiously positive and inspiring,” Mohr said.
The message that Hockley brought was that “every kid deserves to have someone there to help them in times of need and someone to watch out for them,” Sather said.
The Hockleys “saw that Dylan would have good days and bad days,” Mohr said. “On the good days, people didn’t focus on the differences and made connections, and Dylan’s demeanor changed to positive.”
According to the Wings of Change website, Dylan “was able to navigate the world and enjoy life so much more when those around him would step up and be his wingman.”
The program is “a perfect fit for our middle school,” Mohr said, “by inspiring students to realize the power of words and the impact students have on our world.”
Middle school students are “reaching a new level of independence,” she said. “It’s a perfect time to show them that they can impact the world.”
A Wingman committee comprised of 23 seventh and eighth graders has been nominated by Helen Keller staff to improve the school climate.
The program will train them to create activities, recognition programs and kindness challenges.
An activity created by students in another middle school is known as the “toothpaste activity,” Sather said.
Students create a favorite animal using newspaper and toothpaste and then try to put the toothpaste back in the tube. The effort creates “a mess,” Sather said, and illustrates how difficult it is to take words back once they’re spoken.
“Our words are going to create beauty or hurt,” Mohr said.
Helen Keller School has a philosophy in place based on developing relationships, a sense of community and advocacy, she said, and the school population is divided into 10 advisory groups.
Wingman activities could be conducted within the groups.
The advisory groups already have activities, Sather said, but the Wingman program would give those activities “a little more life.”
The program would lead to an important shift in focus.
Until now, staff members created activities, but the Wingman program will enable students to take over that task.
In order to reach every student, Wingman committee members will represent students from every type of social group, Mohr said, and not just “A” students and those who are leaders.
In February, Mohr, Sather and Hockley will introduce the program to the students.
“Ian will tell Dylan’s story and give the background about the creation of Wingman as well as the goals of the program,” Mohr said.
Student committee members will undergo two days of training and will create and run activities throughout the spring.
Thereafter, a total of 11 sixth graders will be trained toward the end of each school year, and ninth graders may return to work with the eighth graders.
The short-term goal is “to get a solid handle on how to run the logistics and develop [the program] further,” Mohr said.
“We’re immensely grateful to the ERCCC [Easton Redding Community Care Coalition],” she said, for providing funding to launch the program, and to the Easton Board of Education for its support.
This year’s $3,300 expense includes the cost of the program trainer, guest speakers, activity supplies, and the recognition program that honors a school community member who “has gone above and beyond.”
Next year, the cost will increase, because the program will cover a full year.
“We have the funding we need,” Principal Susan Kaplan told the school board on Dec. 11. “We’re very, very excited about that.”
“I’m ecstatic that we were able to get the funding we need to make this happen for our students this year,” she said. “I’m also appreciative of the support we received from the Board of Education to make this happen.”
Helen Keller is the 19th Connecticut school to take on the Wingman program, Mohr said, and schools, dance studios and sports clubs across the United States have joined the “Wingman League,” according to the website.
Wingman is effective because it’s a grassroots program, Sather said, and because it’s personalized to each school and based on student feedback.
The values it imparts may affect students’ lives beyond their school years and “change the way they view their own ability to help others and impact the world,” Mohr said. “The sky is the limit.”