After school program unites area kids

Mi Young Park

Students play games at Unitas.

Unitas’ peer support group teaches teamwork

Every Thursday, Angel Rivera, a junior at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, comes to St. Athanasius School to mentor younger children. He helps them with their homework, plays games with them, sits at their side as they do art projects. He enjoys the work, and knows for him, it is the right place to be. After all, it was only a few years ago that he was literally in their seat himself.

Angel is one of around 20 teen mentors in Unitas’ after school program, held each Thursday at St. Athanasius on Southern Boulevard. Called “caregivers,” the teens are put in charge of a few children whom they watch over each week.

“I was helped a lot by my caretakers when I was a kid,” Angel explained. “I learned a lot back then, and now I want to help these kids.”

Unitas has provided free counseling and a variety of social service programs to help children and families in Hunts Point and Longwood for 46 years. In 1967, Unitas’ founder, Dr. Edward Eismann, started to work with children in the streets, based on his formal clinical work at the Lincoln Community Mental Health Center in Melrose. In 1968, Unitas started its mentoring program with St. Athanasius School.

Over the years, the program has served hundreds of children, but perhaps even more unique is its ability to keep them coming back: students become caregivers, and in some cases, caregivers then become counselors, creating a cycle of responsibility over nearly a decade.

On a recent Thursday, a couple of fifth grade students were drawing and painting Halloween ghosts on white paper. Some teenagers came to join them and help them paint. By 4 p.m., the gym and the cafeteria were filled with about 100 students, from first graders to high school seniors. The kids were all mixed in groups, playing card games, shooting basketballs, dancing or hunkered down with homework. The older students organized and led the games, and the younger ones joined in.

Charmaine Henderson, a senior at Banana Kelly High School in Longwood, joined the Unitas program three years ago. Being a mentor is a responsibility, but the rewards can go both ways, she said. “I have fun here,” Charmaine said. “Everyone has strong relationships from helping each other.”

The idea of family is promoted at all moments, even in the language participants use. The caretakers, also called big brothers or big sisters, help the younger children and form symbolic families with them. The counselors are called their “fathers and mothers.”

“This is a therapeutic education,” Eismann said as he walked around the cafeteria. “They feel safe emotionally and physically in this peaceful kingdom.”

Eismann and three counselors circled the gym and the cafeteria and checked on their activities. Counselors don’t interfere; instead, they let the teenagers direct the action.

“We counsel children and help them communicate with themselves,” said Raquel Barrett, a counselor for Unitas. “We teach them how to support each other. Regardless of age, they share their stories and get along together.”

When free time ended, Eismann called the kids into the gym, organizing them into what the group calls a “therapeutic community circle.” After some chatting, the students sat quietly until directed to shout “TRIBE!” in unison.

A counselor asked the kids, “What do you do for fun?” and they began to share their stories, recounting their free time activities. Soon, two girls were in the center of the circle, sharing their stories with the other kids.

Eismann then selected four children to help him act out a short play about the importance of bonds between siblings. One child played a dying father; the other three played his daughter and two brothers. In the plot, the children were faced with the father’s will.

Eismann handed a stick to each child, and asked him or her to break it. Each stick broke easily. Next he gathered four sticks together and asked each child to break them in a group. This time the task was not so easy. The moral, he said, is you are stronger together than alone.

The story for each week is designed to build unity and cohesion among group members, and develop communication skills so children can achieve that unity. Praise, encouragement, empathy and conflict resolution are the key to those communication skills, Eismann said.

“Students learn together, play together and work together,” said Marianne Kraft, the principal of St. Athanasius, who has supported Unitas’ program over 40 years. “Through this process, kids become big brothers and big sisters, and learn how to help and communicate with people.”

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