The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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January 25, 2014

Leadership conference sparks mentor program

JOHNSTOWN — After the six student representatives from Conemaugh Valley High School returned from the T-D Youth Leadership Seminar, high school guidance counselor Laurie Semelsberger said she noticed a sense of empowerment about them.

Not only did the students devise a mentoring program for the school’s incoming seventh-graders to fulfill the seminar’s community project requirement, Semelsberger said more is in the works.

“There’s good packages in small schools. There’s good students in small schools,” she said. “A lot of times, the small schools get overlooked because we don’t have the money and the big programs, but even with little resources, you can do a lot if you have good kids.

“And we have great kids. ... They’re doers. You mention one thing – they’re going to go with it.

“This program prodded them to get motivated to do other things in the school,” Semelsberger said.

The students said they chose to provide the incoming underclassmen with mentors because they felt good role models are hard to come by these days. With the program, which is set to begin during the school’s May orientation, the wide-eyed newcomers can have peer support that the coordinators feel ultimately will help bring the student body closer to one another.

“We feel like we’re getting too separated as a school,” sophomore Brandon Galasso said. “We’re splitting into the jocks and the people involved in out-of-school activities. We don’t want to lose the whole school. We want to unite them all together.”

Students who sign up to be mentors must maintain a 90 percent grade point average between all their classes and be enrolled in at least two extracurricular activities.

Junior Mikayla Lint said she felt that involvement was crucial to secondary school development. She proposed that portfolios about all the mentors be made available to the mentees, with pictures, activities, sports and other relatable information that will help the youngsters identify with the upperclassmen.

Mentors’ email addresses also will be provided, to help the students get in touch if they feel overwhelmed by the “newbie” experience. Semelsberger said the leadership group has set at least three checkpoints throughout the year when the mentors will make sure their charges feel at home.

“We’ve been through the things they’re going through and their parents might not understand because they didn’t have what we have when they were kids,” said Lint, referring to modern issues like cyberbullying. “We can connect with them easier and show them different ways to deal with things that their parents might not be able to do.”

An activity fair is also in the works – much like a college fair, Semelsberger said – where the seventh-graders can learn about ways they can involve themselves during their six years at the school and build varied relationships along the way.

Galasso said there are about 60 incoming seventh-graders for the 2014-2015 school year.

“If there were 10 upperclassmen taking five (seventh-graders) each, it could make a difference,” he said.

“We feel like they need someone to take them under their wing.”

Sophomore Megan Paonessa said the theme of togetherness was inspired during the T-D Youth Leadership Seminar.

“I think it made us realize that unity is important and unity is behind the structure of every sort of organization,” she said.

“If we can unify our school, we can make our school better.”

Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at

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