“Don’t just sit there playing Xbox!” Team Leader Peeram Mirhaji exclaimed to a roomful of young students. He and the other members of Weehawken High School Peer Leadership program ran a veritable recruitment operation in early November to get their classmates to leave their couches and televisions and join what he called a “brotherhood of community service” – one that has changed his life.
In the high school’s music room, middle and high school students chatted and munched on pizza supplied by Lisa Rovito and the Weehakwen Elks, with junior and senior peer leadership teachers Edward Monahan and Laura Sciortino observing.
Sciortino was invited to lead the high school team a year ago by Principal Peter Olivieri and considers it to be “one of the most enriching experiences of [her] life.” Without the help of Olivieri, seventh and eighth grade Principal Anthony LaBruno, their administration, and the Board of Education, the club could not exist, she said.
What is Peer Leadership?
The Peer Leadership program gives students the chance to serve their community through multiple volunteer and mentoring opportunities. The high school program received two Thomas A. DeGise County Executive Citations in 2008 and 2009 for their participation in the Project Homeless Event, which supplies hot meals, medical screenings, hygiene kits, warm clothes, and more.
“Once you start, it’s hard to stop.” –Valerie Varghese
“They went and held babies with fetal alcohol syndrome,” Sciortino said. “It was heartbreaking and beautiful all at once.”
Prospective Peer Leaders must fill out an application and write a letter of intent stating why they wish to join, what they wish to gain, and how they feel they can contribute. They must promise not to use drugs and they must keep their grades up in order to maintain membership.
Students are required to work a minimum of 40 hours per year and 10 hours per marking period; which, when one considers schoolwork, extra-curricular activities, paid work, and family demands, adds up to quite a commitment.
“It is so inspiring to be around students who really see community service as a worthy activity,” Sciortino said. Even if they enter the group with their college resume foremost on their minds, she said, the work they do always touches them, and many continue to volunteer in college and beyond.
Making a difference
High School Peer Leadership President and senior Valerie Varghese has been in the program since eighth grade and was motivated to join by her Christianity, the example her mother sets by volunteering regularly, and by her 13-year-old autistic brother, Daniel.
“I love giving to the point where I have nothing,” she said. “I feel like God provides me with the rest.”
Valerie’s favorite event was when she worked with a man in his 60s at the Special Bowling Olympics in 2010.
“Some people feel it and need it,” she said of helping others. “It’s something inside you that some have, and some don’t, and once you start, it’s hard to stop.”
She plans to continue her volunteer work when she moves on to college next year.
Team Leader Peeram ran against Valerie for president, but does not regret her election over his own. “She’s the type of person who’s more organized; I’m more of a go-getter,” he said.
At first, Peeram said, he joined the program to beef up his college resume. But then it “opened [his] eyes” and he really got into it.
“Everything about volunteering makes me feel better,” the senior said, like the time he was the “running boy” for the 2010 Lincoln Tunnel Challenge and helped to register all of the participants. Or the time he was the supervisor for the Bowling Olympics and made sure everything ran smoothly.
In fact, when he helped Mayor Richard Turner with the Junior Olympics two years ago, his hard work inspired Turner to give him a temporary job at the public library.
Two Peer Leadership members – Team Leader and senior Johan Tzic and sophomore Alyssa Denfeld – received the very first two “Volunteer Extraordinaire” awards last year for their outstanding service above and beyond the program’s requirements.
Peer Leadership Vice President Phyllis Duffy could not attend the pizza party due to her recently removed tonsils. As a testament to her love for her work, she emailed the Reporter and said that her favorite part of the program is seeing the smiles on the faces of those she helps.
“I plan on using what I have learned from Peer Leadership and following this lifestyle for the rest of my life,” she wrote.
Rovito from the Elks said, “They are an incredible, hard-working group of kids.”