Instead of their usual Friday morning classes, Mahopac Middle School (MMS) students began their day with a lesson on the scientific theory of the Butterfly Effect, the notion that a single flap of a butterfly’s wings can play a significant part in generating a tornado a great distance away.
However, the focus was not on the butterflies but the students learning that tiny acts of empathy and inclusion do in fact make a difference. This was the launch of the Wingman Program, 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.
As explained to MMS students by his father, Ian Hockley, Dylan was a child with autism, who was often misunderstood or excluded. However, he was able to “navigate the world and enjoy life so much more when those around him would step up and be his wingman.” He emphasized that “on the good days, people didn’t focus on the differences and made connections, and Dylan’s demeanor changed to positive.”
The middle school has a group of students who have committed to take the lead in their school to counter rejection, exclusion and isolation with acts of compassion. These “wingmen” went through an application process that included a written rationale for why they want to be part of the program. Parents and caregivers provided their signatures on the applications as a commitment of support for their student-wingman.
MMS Reading teacher Christine McNeil said, “It was interesting to read why our participating ‘wingmen’ wanted to be part of the program. Several of the students wrote that they feel excluded or disliked by fellow students and wanted to be part of something that makes a positive change in our school culture.” Learning about the program from her daughter’s school in Connecticut, McNeil brought it to MMS three years ago and participation grows each year.
MMS Principal Tom Cozzocrea aims for the Wingman Program to help instill a positive change with how students make choices, particularly pertaining to social media and vaping.
Middle school students are “reaching a new level of independence,” he said. “It’s a perfect time to show them that they can impact the world with smart and healthy choices. The more positive change we introduce students starting right now, the more negative effects we avoid.”
Underscoring the value of the Wingman Program, popular motivational speaker Ed Gerety spoke to students about creating a positive school culture with acts of kindness and respect. This high-energy and interactive presentation instilled the “butterfly effect” with real-life testimonials, group participation like creating a “rainforest” with hand motions and one MMS student coming before his peers of about 400 to call his mother to say he loved her and appreciated all she does for him.
The values the Wingman Program imparts are meant to affect students’ lives beyond the classroom and encourage them to “live and lead your life with gratitude, respect, kindness and a belief in yourself and one another. To play big in the game of life, go for your dreams and seize the day,” Gerety said.
One wing flap at a time.
October 5, 2018