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East County school buddies share important lessons

The partnerships have proven valuable in learning lessons about responsibility and communication.

Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy freshman Daniel Valderrama has built a bond with second grader Vladimir Bruges.
Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy freshman Daniel Valderrama has built a bond with second grader Vladimir Bruges.
Photo by Liz Ramos
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The Out-of-Door Academy senior Brandon Beasley was getting a lesson that was just as valuable as anything he has learned in a math or science class.

As part of the school's senior buddy program, Beasley was watching over his kindergarten buddy, Preston Ebling, who was on the playground, playing on the swings.

Beasley was chatting with a senior friend, Chase Taraska, and he took his attention off Ebling for just a moment.

When he looked back toward the swings, Ebling was gone.

"I got scared," Beasley said. "I had to try to find him real quick."

Fortunately, he found him quickly and no harm was done. But Beasley will remember that lesson in responsibility.

Schools all around East County have found students can learn all kinds of lessons from each other and therefore many schools utilize some kind of buddy program.

It's not new at ODA, where Beasley remembered being a kindergartner himself, meeting his own senior buddy for the first time.

He said he located his buddy by finding a name tag that had a matching animal on it. They went to the swing sets, and Beasley remembered being pushed higher and higher.

“It was getting to a point where it was way too high,” Beasley said. “I kind of fell back, and my buddy was scared that I got hurt ... but I was fine.”

Years later, Beasley had his own scare.

The programs differ from school to school in terms of the ages of the buddies and the format. However, all the programs rely on the students learning from each other.

Daniel Valderrama, a freshman at Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy’s upper school, walks over to the lower school at least twice per week for his peer counseling class, where he meets with second grader Vladimir Bruges. 

Valderrama, who speaks Spanish fluently, is able to help Bruges develop his English speaking, reading and comprehension. 

After they got to know each other the first day they met, Bruges felt more comfortable and they were able to start working on assignments. 

The language barrier had caused Bruges to be more reserved with his teachers and classmates, but with Valderrama, Bruges was free to express himself. 

“He’s very hyper and he's always trying to do something, which I find funny,” Valderrama said of Bruges. “For me, it’s like having a little brother. 

Emma Goodhue, a Robert E. Willis Elementary School fourth grader, spends time every Friday reading to her book buddy, Isabelle Lorenz.
Courtesy image

Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy's peer counseling class prompts freshmen and sophomores to form partnerships with younger students. The programs encourage all the involved students to participate together in various activities. 

Teachers at various schools in East County said the buddy partnerships have taught both the older and younger students valuable lessons on verbal and nonverbal communication. They said the programs have led to students learning to express themselves better.

The older students learn about responsibility, and the younger students have someone else to communicate with them who is not a parent or a teacher. 

At Robert E. Willis Elementary School, kindergarten teacher Peggy Turner and fourth grade teacher Keli Georgas have been partnering their classes for reading book buddies for 15 years. 

Every Friday, Georgas’ class walks into Turner’s class to read to their buddies. On this particular Friday, Emma Goodhue, a fourth grader, scanned the room to find her kindergarten buddy, Isabelle Lorenz. When they found each other, they smiled with excitement.

Goodhue enjoys reading to her buddy and helping her to get ready for her future lessons. Goodhue said she hopes she has taught Lorenz to try hard and to never give up on her dreams. She also wants Lorenz to pass on kindness.

“(Book buddies) makes my Friday more fun,” Goodhue said. “By the end of the year, we’re probably going to have some special bond.”

Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy freshman works at least twice per week with second grader Vladimir Bruges.
Photo by Liz Ramos

While some buddies might be shy at first, it doesn’t take long for them to warm up. 

“By the fourth time, they are not letting the kindergartners go without hugs before they leave,” Georgas said. “They say, ‘I’m going to miss you.’”

Turner and Georgas said the students feel a little lost when their buddy is absent. No one wants to miss out on buddy visits. 

Besides reading, the buddies do crafts and activities together as well.

This year, Georgas and Turner plan to have their students make scrapbooks for each other.

At the end of the school year, Georgas and Turner said there are tearful goodbyes. 

The students at ODA build up relationships over years. Sitting at school's convocation this year, senior Charlie Huegill was taken back in time. She remembered being a kindergartner herself walking through the balloon arch to the celebration, where she stood with all the other kindergartners to sing Bruno Mars’ “Count On Me” to their senior buddies. 

The Out-of-Door Academy senior Brandon Beasley loves having conversations with his kindergarten buddy, Preston Eibling.
Courtesy image

Huegill said as a kindergartner, she didn’t understand the significance of the moment, but now as a senior, it’s a precious memory. Convocation is an event to celebrate the seniors’ accomplishments while welcoming the kindergartners to ODA. It’s a passing of the torch. 

Seniors meet with their kindergarten buddies about five times per year either at the lower school in Siesta Key or the upper school in Lakewood Ranch. 

What Huegill remembers most about her buddy, Kate Douglas, when she was in kindergarten was Douglas’ height. She felt Douglas towered over her. 

When The Out-of-Door Academy's Charlie Huegill was in kindergarten, she spent time with her senior buddy Kate Douglas. Now a senior, Huegill hopes to make memories with her kindergarten buddy.
Courtesy image

“She was just really tall," Huegill said. "I look back at pictures now, and she was just tall.”

Huegill said she’s enjoyed being a senior in the buddy program and has loved serving as a mentor. It gives her a break from the rigor of high school and the stress of filling out college applications. He enjoys the kindergarten activities such as playing on the swings and making beaded necklaces. 

“It makes you feel young again,” Huegill said. “It’s fun to do what they want to do whether it’s play hide and seek or tag or go on the slide. It’s fun seeing how fearless little kids are, how none of them are embarrassed.”

As “ODA lifers,” meaning they attended ODA from kindergarten through 12th grade, Beasley and Huegill said having their own kindergarten buddy always was something they looked forward to as they came up through middle and high school. 

“It kind of felt like it was never going to happen,” Beasley said. “It felt like it kind of took forever for us to become seniors.”

The peer partnerships at Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy began in its inaugural year last year as freshmen helped young students exit their cars safely in the drop-off loop before walking them to their classes. 

Nicole Durbal, the student support specialist for the upper school, said whenever the younger students saw the older students in the hallways, they would wave and want to give them a hug. 

The school then started Book Explorers, where the freshmen read to younger students, followed by the peer counseling class this school year.

When Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy sophomore Gianna Weldon walked into the lower school Oct. 11, she saw her buddy Addison Winkle, a second grader, in the nurse’s office crying. 

The nurse, Kate Lavin, and Durbal immediately asked Weldon to talk to Winkle to calm her. 

“I can tell when I walk into the school if she’s having a good day or a bad day,” Weldon said of Winkle. “A lot of times we’ll talk about how it is at home with her family and what she’s looking forward to that week. We’ve built up a friendship.”

Winkle said every time she sees Weldon, she feels better, and she feels special having a buddy in the upper school.



Liz Ramos

Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.

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