WA organizations strive for positive change


Provided by Jill Sidelinger

The Westford Academy Best Buddies Club poses together after finishing the creation of their gingerbread houses.

James Farley, Staff Writer

Westford Academy’s Best Buddies Club reflects on the final products of their Jack-o-Lantern’s from their pumpkin carving activity. (provided by Jill Sidelinger)

Walking into the classroom, seeing the smiling faces of friends sets a tone of comfort, acceptance, and inclusion.  The smiles are contagious, appearing on all those who enter, as if a switch has been flipped.  Collaboration and teamwork take place at its finest, and a sense of comfort fills the room.  Westford Academy’s own Best Buddies Club certainly tries to provide those valuable friendships everyone relies on.

The Peer Counseling Organization, Westford Academy Pride group, ADL-AWOD program, and Best Buddies club here at Westford Academy strive to help students stop talking the talk, and begin walking the walk.  Whether it is through helping others, or having others there to help you, these organizations endeavor to make a positive impact on the Westford Academy student body, as well the entire world. 


Peer Counseling Organization:

Freshmen race down the hallway, peering at door frames in search of the number that matches their schedule, while checking their phone so that they make it to their first class in time.

The Peer Counseling Organization here at Westford Academy seeks to resolve these overwhelming situations for students.  Ms. Susan Lynch and Ms. Heidi Hider, school counselors here at Westford Academy, are the club advisors of the organization.  The program is organized by the two counselors, with them as leaders vying to support their students as often as possible.  One of the ways they benefit Westford Academy’s population is by assigning peer counselors to assist incoming freshmen on their first day of high school.

“Standing in a homeroom with nervous ninth-graders, saying that you’ve been there and felt the same way, is a really good way to calm that person down and make their day better,” Lynch said. “You can be a familiar face in the hall at some point, so being a role model on someone’s first day can be really helpful and powerful.”

The Peer Counseling Organization strongly advocates for helping students in this phase of maturity of their high school careers.  By supporting the peer counselors, Lynch and Hider attempt to inspire them into guiding the student body here at Westford Academy.  Early in their careers, Lynch and Hider joined forces to navigate the waters of the Peer Counseling group, and have not turned back since.  

“It just feels good to help other people,” said Hider.  

Lynch and Hider provide Freshman and Sophomore students a chance to complete application forms for the organization in the spring, determining who is or is not accepted into the program.  The organization looks for students who truly want to make a difference in not just the lives of people at our school, but for people around the world.

Positively affecting as many people as possible is one of the priorities that the organization tries to keep on the top of their list.  They look to help not only high school students, but students at elementary schools across the town, too.  Fourth grade classrooms at the Day School, Robinson School, and Crisafulli School, among others, have the opportunity to be in the loop of one of these services.

“Another big [activity] is the Bullying Education Programs that we do in all of the fourth grades in the district,” Hider said.  “In a typical year, we would do three separate trips to each fourth grade and would bring a group of peer counselors with us to do those classroom programs.”

Peer counselors impact their fourth grade buddies, providing them with a positive role model.

“If a high school kid says to a fourth-grader, ‘you should try this’, that has credibility, and we are always looking for these types of mentors and role models,” said Lynch.

The future of the Peer Counseling Organization is in the hands of the up and coming participants, truly shining a light on how much the members can benefit the world one day.

Lynch said, “We are open to any opportunity where our Peer Counselors can serve as role models or mentors,”

The Peer Counseling Organization desires to continue the process of building their members up to becomes the best mentors possible.

“There are some students who innately want to help,” Lynch said.  “If they are looking for a place where they can be kind and helpful, this is a great organization [for them].”

Westford Academy Pride Organization:

Understanding, confidence, flexibility, and a drive for good are the mindset of WA Pride Organization members.

Westford Academy Health Teacher Melanie Jozokos has organized the organization for two years now, and has no plans of stopping. 

“It’s [the club] awesome.  The first meeting, […] I got to see it live where our students were interacting with elementary school students,”  Jozokos said.  “For people who know me, I’m a super-emotional person anyway, but I actually cried [tears of joy].

WA Pride focuses on developing students here at Westford Academy into well-rounded individuals who enjoy serving others.  The group does so by providing students various opportunities around town to support their community.

“I want students to recognize something that they want to do in their community, or something that they feel passionately about, and bring it back to the club,”  said Jozokos.  “[…] The students have been awesome.  […]  I just send out opportunities as they come.”  

The WA Pride Organization strives to benefit the Westford community as often as possible, through various programs. One of which is Ghosts and Goblins, a program where WA Pride members at the high school mentor elementary school students around town.  

“I just couldn’t believe how amazing the program was,” Jozokos said.  “These little kids look up to the high school kids like they are superheroes.”  

Similar to all organizations across the country, WA Pride has had to adapt to the current COVID-19 circumstances and make the best of the situation.  While spending most of their time at home, students yearn to get out of the house in any way possible, and the WA Pride organization equips students with this opportunity.

“People are eager to get out and do things,” Jozokos said.  “[…]  That [has been] one benefit.”

With WA Pride meetings going fully remote for the time being, the number of participants has increased.

“I didn’t think we would have as many students [this year], but we have [even more than before].  It’s almost more accessible,” Jozokos said.  “We’ve had a lot of interest in it this year.  That’s definitely interesting.”  

Jozokos is excited with the progress made by WA Pride, and envisions this positivity continuing in the future.

“I’m seeing more and more students want to take the lead on things,” Jozokos said.  “Students have been awesome [with guiding the organization in a positive direction].”

While the purpose of WA Pride is to help the Westford community, those being supported are not the only people benefiting from this group.

“[When you] hear about WA Pride, it sounds like it’s an organization that just helps other people,” Jozokos said.  “But I do think that students realize the impact that it has on themselves [too].”

Open to all students here at Westford Academy, everyone is welcome at the WA Pride organization.

“For students who have that desire to volunteer, [they should definitely] join,” Jozokos said. “I’m so glad I got involved with it.”

ADL-AWOD Program:

In the age we live in, ‘isms’ plague the earth.  Racism, sexism, classism, and ageism are just some of those on the list, and must be eliminated for people around the world to live their best lives.

This is where the ADL-AWOD organization comes into play.  ADL’s mission is to make everyone feel as safe as possible, and to support equity and inclusion to the best of their ability.  They help to deal with the unfair inequalities that humans face on a daily basis, and pursuit the process of negating these setbacks in our society.  ADL’s actions in these situations attempt to display the light at the end of the tunnel.

Westford Academy has the opportunity to run this program, becoming part of the positive change needed around us.  ADL Peer Leaders follow in the footsteps of their mentors, allowing them to also develop into mentors at one point. 

One mentor at Westford Academy is Spanish teacher Kristin Morris.  Previously an ADL advisor at Stony Brook Middle School in Westford, she now seeks to support even more diversity and inclusion in her first year with the program here at the high school level. 

“This has always been a passion of mine since I was young,” said Morris.  “When this opportunity came up and Ms. Kravitz asked me about it for WA, it was a no brainer.”

This no brainer of a decision allowed for Morris to become a trained ADL mentor in Montpelier, Vermont earlier this year. 

“I learned amazing things about myself, [and] about the way issues are handled in our nation,” Morris said.  “[It] was very fulfilling.  It fired me up even more to work with students on this.”

With inequalities involving racism becoming a major topic of discussion right now in the United States, ADL is taking upon the responsibility of spreading their knowledge to their members, driving home the fact that these judgments are no longer welcome in our country.  Now, it is Morris’ job to positively influence students regarding these issues, and help them become trained leaders as well.

Once students are trained as leaders, they have the privilege to spread their knowledge to even more people, including the student body here at Westford Academy.  

“For the students who decide to become peer leaders, they work with [their peers] who may speak to them about microaggressions and incidents they have had at Westford Academy,” Morris said.  “It can help trigger [important conversations].  

Not only do peer leaders provide students with guidance, but they also supply themselves with important self-evaluations.  

“[To be a strong peer leader] you have to admit to yourself that you do have an internal bias,” Morris said.  “That’s one thing that a number of people recognize, and it’s hard to do.”

The hard work of the peer leaders is constantly being displayed within the program, and Morris is confident that as they grow as people, the program will continue to grow as well.

“The insight and maturity that these peer advisors possess [is incredible],”  Morris said.  “I would compare it to that of my son’s friends in college on their thought process, their ability to discuss, and their ability to logically present ideas.”

Spreading the work of ADL into classrooms and beyond, Morris, along with the rest of the ADL program, is fully supportive of all students here at Westford Academy.

“Many students come to WA ashamed of who they are, whether that be through race, religion, or class,” Morris said.  “I hope that our work through ADL helps them realize that they are just as valuable members of our community as everyone else.”

Best Buddies Club:

Here at Westford Academy, the Best Buddies club provides students with a fun and supportive environment, involving friends when they need them most.  Club supervisors Jill Sidelinger and Cheryl Denaro have taken upon the role of leading this club at the high school.

About eight years ago, Sidelinger and Denaro came together to create what was formerly known as the WA Friends organization.  It has since transformed into the Best Buddies club, and is striving to positively influence students here at Westford Academy as often as possible.

“Part of Best Buddies is creating [opportunities] for kids who have intellectual disabilities or autism,” said Sidelinger. “It helps them create that one on one friendship with somebody that they wouldn’t normally be able to make.”

This program looks to provide students with an opportunity to put themselves out there, form new friendships, and step outside of their comfort zone.

“We meet virtually every other Wednesday,” said Sidelinger.  “And then we look to have one other [group activity] every month”.

So far this year, Best Buddies has been able to have a pumpkin carving spree and Gingerbread House creation activity.

In the past two years, along with an increase in group adventures, the group has drastically increased in members as well.

“In the last two years, we have grown from three people to thirty people now,” said Denaro.  “I feel like it is the big thing around school right now.”

Best Buddies provides students that have intellectual disabilities with friends, or “buddies”.  Part of the reason as to why participants have formed such close bonds with each other is due to these helpers’ willingness to always be there for their friends.

“A lot of these kids need someone to contact them in order to have a friend,” said Denaro.  “We try very hard to match them up with someone, and have a buddy, have fun, and share their happiness [together].”

This happiness not only positively influences those with cognitive disabilities, but the buddies themselves as well.

In her first year as a buddy in the organization, freshman Leah Spinney has had nothing short of a great experience with the club thus far.

“Best Buddies creates some of the best friendships.  You are always guaranteed to have a great time and will always be smiling,” said Spinney.  “It makes me realize that we are all just teenagers trying to find our place in the world.”

This “smile so much your face hurts” type of environment is definitely a feel good club, according to Sidelinger.

“You won’t regret joining,” Sidelinger said.

From the WA Pride group to the WA Peer Counseling Organization, and the ADL-AWOD program to the Best Buddies Club, these organizations at Westford Academy vie to positively influence students, and change the world for the better.

“Be a friend,” said Sidelinger.  “It’s free to put a smile on somebody’s face.”