Depot program teaches overlooked social habits

Mackenzie, left, and James Shanley, chat during “Shanley Time” at the Depot’s food bar.

Mackenzie, left, and James Shanley, chat during “Shanley Time” at the Depot’s food bar.

Middle school is a tough, transitional stage for boys but James Shanley, the namesake of the new “Shanley Time” program at the Depot youth center, believes he can help.

The program was designed by Shanley, a graduate of Darien High School’s class of 2011, under the guidance of Janice Marzano, the Depot’s director, to teach seventh and eighth grade boys about respect, responsibility and teamwork. The first four-week sessions were a pilot program, and they decided “even if we have five kids, it’s successful,” Marzano said. After those four weeks, the boys came back, she said.

Marzano has known Shanley since he began coming to the Depot in high school. She says she is proud of him.

Shanley “had a lot of difficulties at that age,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of different things that I’ve learned from and moved on from — I want to pass that on.” He went to Connecticut Friends School — a Quaker school — from second to eighth grade, which stressed non-violent conflict resolution, he said.

He spent his junior and senior years at Darien High School, where he participated in football, indoor track, outdoor track, wrestling and rugby. Before that, he attended Fairfield Prep for two years.

Now in its second month, Shanley Time is starting with small lessons, some planned and some tailored to the returning group of middle school boys. Many times the lessons come up in a relaxed environment, while eating pizza or playing a board game, Shanley said.

He has many stories to share about the weekly program that has covered “lessons on trusting yourself, being able to trust others,” knowing the difference between friends and acquaintances, and that it’s OK to have a small number of friends, he said.

During one session, Shanley taught the boys about respect by coaching them in a good handshake and looking a person in the eyes. Another lesson about teamwork arose out of a friendly and competitive game of “Clue,” Shanley said, and he has watched some of the boys become friends by helping each other and working together.

“Those are things that no one teaches them [or] shows them how to do,” Shanley said.

A spontaneous discussion about deodorant allowed Shanley to improvise a lesson about personal hygiene in a positive lens, he said. One of his Shanley’s friends, a girl named Mackenzie, who also volunteers at the Depot, sometimes participates in “Shanley Time.” She has given advice from a girl’s perspective, like during the conversation about hygiene, she noted that girls would appreciate it, Marzano said.

Shanley also used their platonic relationship as a lesson that girls and guys can be friends, he said.

Shanley has one big project planned that involves teamwork and trust. He is waiting for a day when there are a good number of boys to have them work on a project that will delegate different tasks to each and teach a lesson based on the outcome, he said.

“A lot of it is just talking with them,” Shanley said. “We sit at the counter and talk for about half an hour.” Many of the lessons and conversations are simple but if the boys start to have more mature conversations, they will be ready and will have time to process, he said.

His strategy is simple: “You don’t reprimand them, you don’t tell them you’re doing it wrong,” he said. “You say ‘Hey, think about it like this, look at it from this angle.’”

“Kids need someone to talk to, other than their parents, that will listen to them,” said Marzano, Depot director. The boys are all treated as equals and feel important at the Depot — they are not labeled, she said.

Kim Aponte, mother of Tyler, a seventh grader at Middlesex Middle School, was impressed with James Shanley and the program. Her son has participated since the first week. “Tyler comes out of the Depot feeling great every week,” she said. “I would suggest Shanley Time to any parent that asks about it.  He teaches Tyler right from wrong and never ever uses: ‘I am the adult.'”

Her son finds Shanley ‘funny’ and ‘cool’, she said. Aponte also says that he is an interesting person. “He is always open minded and earns kids trust.” she said, “He makes them feel comfortable enough so that they can talk to him about anything.”

Darien’s Survey of Student Resources and Assets determined that in 2011, 59% of seventh graders and 49% of high school seniors had support from “three or more nonparent adults.” In the same year, 52% of male students answered affirmatively to that question, compared to 57% for female students. Likewise, a relatively smaller percent of the male students responded positively to the “support” asset category in general.

“The coolest part is watching them run in after school — running here from school,” Marzano said. She stays out of the way during Shanley Time, but talks to the boys afterward.

One told her: “This is the best thing that I do,” she recalled.

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