Friends Across SFS Gives New Meaning to the Buddy System

It’s always nerve-wracking when you’re meeting for the first time, even (or especially) when that meeting is online.

“I was very anxious,” says Thor Burkhardt ’22. “I was excited, but I was worried. I wanted to make a good impression, because I really cared.”

“I felt good and also a little bit scared,” says Aidan ’29. “Because I’m only a 4th grader and he’s an 11th grader, so that’s seven grades away. He would be like a giant to me.”

Burkhardt (who is 5'10") and Aidan are one of the first pairs of buddies set up by the Friends Across SFS program, which the Auxiliary Department organized to improve connections between students in different grades. Lower School students were matched with either Middle or Upper Schoolers, and Upper Schoolers were matched with either Middle or Lower Schoolers (7th and 8th graders had the option of buddying with younger or older students). The buddies meet mostly one on one (there are some small groups) once a week for an hour just to hang out and talk. The idea began after some unexpected success mixing older and younger students when the School shifted to virtual learning last March.

“In the spring, we were trying to be creative about ways to connect, and we were hearing from different parts of the community about what they needed,” says Alex McCoy, the associate director of Auxiliary Programs. “At that point, something our department took on was the Lunch Bunches for the Lower School.” The Lunch Bunch program was an informal one, in which Lower School students could eat lunch together over Zoom and connect in a nonacademic setting. The Auxiliary Department also needed to find a way for Upper Schoolers to meet their community-service requirement at a time when traditional volunteering wasn’t possible.

McCoy says that got her team thinking: “Is this a way to meet both the needs of our younger students, who need some more meaningful connection time, and then also to meet the needs of our Upper School students, who need to do some service and can benefit from being trained as leaders and mentors?” They decided to give it a shot, says McCoy. “We tried to fill both those needs.”

The seed of Friends Across SFS may have been planted last spring, but it grew over the summer, as Upper School students volunteered via the Helping Hands program to lead small virtual “camps” that covered everything from math to music to movies. The Auxiliary Department first reached out to 60 students and then expanded to their current number of 94 “bigs,” who receive training in online safety, how to build a rapport with their buddy, and strategies for talking to different age groups. Then the department sent out a call to find “littles.”

“I was immediately excited by it, because I love the idea of the kids connecting with each other—especially during this time when we’re so isolated, but even in normal times,” says Heather Tatton-Harris (P ’29 P ’27), Aidan’s mom. “Lower School kids and Upper School kids connected together during the pandemic just seemed like a beautiful idea.”

Aidan did not necessarily agree.

“At first he wasn’t sure if he wanted to do it with me or by himself,” Tatton-Harris says. “Before the first meeting, he pushed me out of the room like, ‘I’ll do this by myself.’ So I left and then I just listened in to see how it was going—and the chatter was nonstop. There was not a lull in the conversation.”

“He asked a lot of questions, so I liked that,” Aidan says. “He started at Sidwell in 9th grade, so he doesn’t know anything about the Lower School, so he asked a lot about what’s happening in the Lower School. And then for the last 30 minutes, I was telling him about this video game I like to play called Marvel Contest of Champions.”

“He told me all the dos and don’ts of which characters I have to buy, which characters I don’t have to buy—he got very into it,” Burkhardt says. “My little buddy really likes Marvel, and he got a kick out of my name being Thor. The thought that went into the selection of the buddies—I’m impressed by that.”

Matching buddies was a process the Auxiliary Department took very seriously, and the amount of information they had to work with varied wildly. “Some people were very detailed, especially some of our Upper School students,” McCoy says. “Some people wrote, ‘Both of my parents are immigrants,’ or, ‘I come from a two-religion household.’ For some of our younger students, it was as simple as, ‘My child is an African American boy and would love to be paired with an African American older student.’” Then there were the Minecraft and LEGO fans, the kids who like to play soccer or lacrosse, and the kids who like to bake. “So, it was a lot of keyword searching,” McCoy says, “to pair kids off.”

The Friends Across SFS program has also been a way to connect the DC and Bethesda campuses in a way that simply wasn’t possible before the pandemic.

“It’s a shame that we have a preK-12 School, and we can’t have our Upper Schoolers who want to work with kids at Lower School during aftercare,” McCoy says. “We don’t have collaboration among clubs or other opportunities like this because of our campus issue.” But when COVID hit, it seemed like a moment to capitalize on a student body untethered from their campuses. “I am very much in the interest of not creating anything that isn’t sustainable, so there’s been deliberate thinking about where this program belongs in the future,” McCoy says. “Even if we’re all back in person, full time next year, there’s no reason not to continue a program like this.”

Burkhardt agrees. “I’m just trying to be someone else to be there,” he says. “I don’t want to say that I’m a mentor because I won’t profess to know Aidan that well, but I’m there as another resource, another outlet, and just another touchpoint. The primary goal is just to be another friend and another person to talk to. I hope I’m bringing that.”


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