As he watched third-grader Jake Prince’s 3-point shot go through the hoop during a game of basketball, the pride in Lynbrook High School sophomore Josh Polansky’s face told the whole story.
“Did you really just make that?” Josh asked, unable to hide the excitement.
“That’s a three,” Prince confirmed with a smile before high-fiving his friend.
Every Tuesday, Josh visits Jake’s house in East Rockaway to spend time with him as part of the Friends Program, which is run by the New Horizon Counseling Center in Valley Stream.
The program pairs students from Lynbrook and Hewlett high schools with younger children, with whom they hang out for an hour each week from September to May. The older students serve as role models and engage in various activities with their younger counterparts.
Jennifer Prince said the program has been beneficial because it helps her son Jake, 8, stay active, and it’s also good for her younger son, Ryan, 6, who is autistic and has trouble communicating verbally.
“I was really happy to learn that not only were they willing to pair my older son Jake with a friend, but they were also willing to find someone to work with my younger son,” Jennifer said. “… We’ve just had such a wonderful experience for both of my children.”
Jake is a student at Waverly Park Elementary School in Lynbrook, while Ryan attends the Martin C. Barell School for children with autism in Commack.
Lynbrook High junior Jessica Moreida dedicates an hour each Friday after school to spending time with Ryan. She said that she has been so inspired by hanging out with him that she wants to study neuroscience in college and learn more about how the human brain functions.
“I find the whole science of the mind, of autism, interesting,” Jessica said. “How they are sometimes only good at one thing or are very good at remembering things. I just find it very interesting.”
She added that she learned about autism at an early age because a cousin has it. She noted that she was motivated to join the Friends Program after she saw it on a list of school clubs, and that she’s noticed positive changes in Ryan since she first met him.
“I could really see the improvements that he’s making every week,” Jessica said. “It’s just great spending time with him and seeing him smile.”
About 50 students and children are paired through the program in Hewlett and about 25 in Lynbrook, according to Audrey Goodman, the community relations organizer for the New Horizon Counseling Center.
“These children have special needs,” Goodman said. “It doesn’t mean that they’re a special-needs child. There’s a very large spectrum of kids. Some need homework help. Some are from special-needs families and need a role model. Others are new in the country or new in the school district. We have everything from children that are very shy to children on the other end of the spectrum who are even autistic and have a special need.”
Goodman said that the center recruits students from the two high schools and then conducts home visits with children in need, to generate the best possible match. Sheila Riera, the program coordinator for Lynbrook High, said the Friends initiative helps younger and older students form a bond.
“They not only get to know that child, but also the family,” Riera said, “because they go into the home and they connect entirely and become a friend, even after the program is gone.”
Josh said that he wasn’t sure what to expect from the program when he first got involved in September, but he’s glad he did it. “In the beginning, I thought like, ‘Okay, I’ll come. Maybe it’ll be fun or whatever,’” he said. “Now I’m definitely looking forward to coming every week and seeing [Jake] smile and having fun with him.”
Josh added that he and Jake play video games, basketball and board games, and do homework together. Jessica and Ryan Prince often color together and bounce on an indoor trampoline.
Jennifer Prince said that the program has helped form a special connection between her family and the two students.
“We live in a very, very small community,” she said. “Our district is very small. Both of these high schoolers live within walking distance to me, and now they’re part of our lives. They wouldn’t have been part of our lives if we didn’t embrace this program.”
To get involved in the Friends Program or learn more about it, contact Sheila Riera at 917-304-8669 or firstname.lastname@example.org.