A different kind of love

Olean Intermediate Middle School Student Activities Council members Aaron Budaj (from left), Leah Richardson, Anna Bates, Sarah Beatman and Cavin Boutillette hang paper apples on a new tree design in the cafeteria corridor that is part of the school’s new initiative “No One Eats Alone” scheduled for Feb. 14.

OLEAN — Students at Olean Intermediate Middle School will be “spreading a different kind of love on Valentine’s Day” when they participate in the new initiative, No One Eats Alone, to be held in the cafeteria.

Staff organizers of the event, Char Dwaileebe and Sheila Yaffee, said the activity is being conducted to stop the isolation that often is found among young adolescents in middle schools.

Dwaileebe said sixth- and seventh-grade students with the Student Activities Council (SAC) were inspired to hold the event after seeing the movie “Wonder,” which tells the story of a young boy with disabilities and the challenges encountered when he attends fifth-grade.

Dwaileebe said that during lunch periods on Friday, groups of SAC members, along with volunteers from Olean High School and the surrounding area, will visit each lunch session and engage in casual conversations with the OIMS students.

“By doing so, the SAC members hope to give classmates an opportunity to move out of their comfort zones and get to know their peers a little bit more,” Dwaileebe said, noting students in Sheri Wilber and Angela Mest’s exceptional education classes will also be involved.

On Friday, Dwaileebe and SAC students were busy writing letters to sponsors of the event that include the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres. Another group of students were found cutting dozens of purple paper apples that will be provided to all students in the cafeteria on Valentine’s Day. Each student will be encouraged to sign the apple and place it on a painted tree in the nearby corridor. The tree was painted by art teacher Laura Cawley and is expected to be used for other initiatives and activities throughout the year.

Dwaileebe said administrators, staff and community members who include athletes from St. Bonaventure University, will also attend the event and visit with students in the cafeteria.

St. Bonaventure students Cody Shimp and Brooke Kane-Walker, with the Student Athletic Advisory Committee, said they and the other athletes will attend in their full sports uniforms and will visit with the young students.

“We’ll converse with them and answer questions they have about our sport and we’ll ask them questions about what they do in school and out of school,” Shimp said of next week’s visit.

Kevin Fisher, general manager for Sodexo and food service director for the district, said the school’s initiative is tied with the Beyond Differences national program that has inspired a cultural and behavioral shift at middle schools and high schools across the country and strives to end social isolation at that level.

“It will create a lot of bad things (for those excluded) — unhealthy eating and unhealthy habits, there is just a lot of negativity” if isolation is not stopped at the middle school level, Fisher explained. “You’re starting to begin your friendships and relationships in middle school … you’re trying to figure out who your peers will be through the remainder of your school years.”

Students who commented on the upcoming event included Aaron Budaj, who said he was looking forward to the activity.

“We’ll get to hang out with friends” as well as others, Aaron said.

Another student, Leah Richardson, said she thinks the initiative will make the students “more cheerful and happy.

“A lot of people don’t sit with other people because they are (different),” Leah explained. “I was shy when I was in fourth-grade, I barely talked to anyone.”

(Contact reporter Kate Day Sager at kates_th@yahoo.com. Follow her on Twitter, @OTHKate)