Approximately 160 Westfield High School students along with several alumni, teachers, and community members, came together on March 22 to attend the Guy & Girl Thing, an annual event aimed at improving the mental health of students and forging connections among peers.
“I want kids to know they are not alone in the challenges they face and that they can offer support to one another,” said health teacher Susan Kolesar, who created the program in 2004. Kolesar said the Guy & Girl Thing is “a way for upperclassmen to share their stories and give back to their school by serving as role models of young people, being vulnerable, yet strong and resilient.” This year’s theme was “Level Up!”, a play on the video game term about getting to the next level. The event challenged student to “level up” in life, as individuals, friends, and support system for their peers.
To get the evening started and break the ice, students were offered a variety of activities, including a dodgeball tournament, taking silly photos in a “photo booth” designed to make them look like they were in a video game, and painting “Kindness Rocks” with motivational sayings that will adorn the high school courtyard. Dinner followed the activities before the presentation of compelling personal accounts from adults and classmates.
Speakers for the evening included Mary Claire Givelber from the Caring Contact crisis hotline/listening community and School Resource Officer and WHS alumnus Ricardo Johnson, who spoke about overcoming personal struggles but ultimately being able to find success in life. Johnson stressed the need to stay clear of drugs and alcohol, to find a support system and take part in positive activities, and to set personal goals.
Hawthorne High School assistant principal and motivational speaker Craig Jandoli took the group on what he called “an emotional rollercoaster.”
“Mr. Jandoli is a dynamic speaker who has an innate ability to get young people to open up and be vulnerable,” Kolesar said. “Throughout his presentation, he had them laughing, crying, reflecting, writing, clapping, chanting, and sharing.”
Jandoli invited current students and alumni to share deeply moving stories that covered a variety of issues, including mental health challenges, family troubles, bullying, substance abuse, unhealthy relationships, and more. “The audience was obviously touched and affected. Many hugged, leaned on one another for support, and listened intently,” Kolesar added. “There were no phones or distractions. You could hear a pin drop.”
Following the powerful speeches, students bonded over ice cream sundaes, music, and March Madness matchups. Seven students won raffle prizes donated by local merchants YESTERades and Gennaro’s, as well as Dave & Buster’s in Woodbridge.
Dubbed the “Wingmen” and “Cover Girls” because they “take underclassmen under their wings and provide emotional cover,” 45 WHS juniors and seniors facilitated the event. “It was nice to know that people were just able to listen and hear everyone’s stories instead of trying to fix the problem,” said “Cover Girl” Sydney Butler. “Sometimes people who are struggling just need to speak and have someone listen. Also, this event has allowed many people to open up and share their hardships. I did not know about the hard times that some of my friends were going through until they shared.”
Kolesar thanked the many individuals and organizations who made possible the Guy & Girl Thing “through their generosity, support, and efforts.” Funding was provided by the WHS PTSO, the Westfield Municipal Alliance, and longtime WHS substitute, Mr. Frank Browne. Health teacher Michelle. Spreitzer and health/physical education teacher Lauren Hauser worked alongside Kolesar to plan and run the event.
“I’m proud to be a part of the Guy & Girl Thing, proud of the current and former Cover Girls and Wingmen for wanting this tradition to continue, and proud as well of the students who took a chance to experience this event,” said Hauser. “It is a unique event that reaches so many kids with a positive message. It allows all grade levels to engage and share personal experiences with the hope of impacting or helping another peer going through a similar life situation.”
“Wingman” Jack Maranz summed up the evening: “The Guy and Girl Thing was an amazing success this year because we were able to bring Westfield High School students together for a moving discussion on how to become the best versions of ourselves. Through inspirational speakers and fellow students, the true meaning of “leveling up” was addressed, teaching us how to strive for greatness and happiness.”
C.J. Composto, another Wingman, offered that he learned many life lessons including that “you cannot keep doing the same old things in life and expect different results. You have to get up and create change in your life”.
“There is no doubt the students left that evening feeling more supported, more aware of self and others, and more connected as a student-body,” added Kolesar. “Many attendees were already talking about attending next year and asking how to get involved. They truly ‘Leveled Up!.’”