Spotlight shines on Mariel Hayes

Senior grows from work with Mills program for students with developmental challenges


Jacob Honig

Senior Mariel Hayes, center, talks with students in the STARS room on a recent June day.

Jacob Honig, Contributing writer

Minutes after the bell rings signaling the start of second period, music echoes from room 126. As you walk through Lewis Mills’ main corridor on the way to class, it continues to grow louder until you are at the door peering into the large white room. On the left and right are two small worktables, surrounded by colorful plastic chairs. The most recent art project, rainbow mosaic butterflies, sit happily along the wall-length bulletin board. In the center of the room, students neatly sitting in a circle play along with a guitar-wielding music therapist, some tapping out melodies on the glockenspiel, others clicking away at claves and shaking maracas. Graduating Lewis Mills senior Mariel Hayes sits in the circle with her fellow students, as she has been doing almost twice a week since the beginning of the school year.

Holding a small drum, she interjects her beat spontaneously, but mostly observes her peers as they joyfully participate in the bustling jam circle. Directly to her left is Cameron, a energetic STARS program student with developmental challenges. She shifts herself towards him and politely asks if she can see his mallet. Demonstrating the proper way to use the instrument, she taps on the ascending metal keys of the glockenspiel precisely and then returns his mallet to watch him follow her example. Suddenly, Cam swiftly flicks the mallet down onto his instrument, initiating a particularly rowdy solo and eliciting giggles from around the room. Mariel smiles proudly. As the song ends, a suggestion is made by one of the program paraprofessionals that the music therapy instructor play the “Bye Bye Song” – a favorite of Carl, another student in the STARS program for teens and young adults with developmental challenges. They begin, and his eyes immediately widen. He turns his head, scanning the room as if to say, “OMG everybody! This is my song!” From his wheelchair, he begins to sway back and forth, and side to side to the rhythm of the guitar with particular excitement.

A poster celebrating diversity hangs in the STARS room. Students recently crafted their own butterfly projects.

“Good job Carl,” Mariel responds. The room exudes another round of laughter.

Mrs. Karen Fletcher is the case manager and teacher for students in the STARS program. She determines the curriculum, schedules work-learning experiences for the students and helps them with everything in between. The program is meant to prepare students to live life independently and join the workforce.

The STARS experience steeps students in everything from vocational training to role playing to nonfiction reading to developing life skills like how to cook, how to do laundry, and how to use a calendar, explained Fletcher. Although it may seem simple for many other high school-age students, it takes a lot of patience and perseverance to develop these skills. That’s where Mariel comes in. She is there as a support system for the students, reading to them, making sure they pay attention and stay on task, and even helping them practice their speech.

Mariel first got involved with the STARS students at the beginning of her senior year when she began working with the Lewis Mills Unified Sports team. Formerly a softball and track athlete, one day as she was walking by the STARS room, Judy, a teaching assistant for the program, pulled her aside to convince Mariel to join the Unified Sports team and help the kids in the classroom as a peer mentor.

“We used to see her a lot in the hallway.” said Judy. “She was always really sweet to the kids, and we thought she would do an amazing job if she came in and worked with them.”

Only a week after their conversation, Mariel made her first appearance in room 126.

“Her first day, she didn’t talk to anyone,” said Mrs. Fletcher. “She was a little overwhelmed by everyone.”

“I was hesitant at first,” said Mariel, “I wasn’t quite sure how to interact with the STARS kids, or how people might think of me if I worked with them. People can be really judgmental of who you hang out with.”

Despite her worries, Mariel continued coming back to the classroom during her free periods. Over the next weeks, she became more comfortable communicating with students, and understanding of their needs, and before long she was making real progress with them.

“At first when I talked to Cam, I had no idea what he was saying. Eventually, I was able to understand him better by just listening, but I also started working with his pronunciation. He especially has trouble with short words because transitioning between letter sounds is difficult, so I would spell out words for him to say like eat, dog, and cat, and show him how to speak them more clearly. It helped a lot and he has definitely come a long way with that. Anyone who’s talked with him before can notice the improvement,” she said.

In addition to working with students in the classroom, Mariel also goes out to be a mentor for students at work sites. Accompanying them to a number of locations, including the Harwinton Town Library, she monitors students as they perform tasks like washing windows, sorting books, and preparing art projects for the month’s upcoming Crafty Kids Club program. For Mariel, it’s a joy to work with students outside of the classroom. As they progress with social interaction, math, reading and other skills, it is all applied to their vocational training, and it is especially rewarding to her to see their strides firsthand. However, it is not always a walk in the park.

“You have to be patient with certain kids,” says Mariel, glancing at one of the STARS students she has grown particularly close to. “With him sometimes he’s silly. He can be silly and can be having fun, but not know when to stop. It takes patience with that one kid to put in the effort to keep them from doing something wrong. You have to have patience, yet enjoy every moment.”

At the school’s annual awards night this past month, a teary-eyed Mrs. Fletcher took the stage to present Mariel the “Outstanding Peer Mentor Award.” With a wide smile and deliberate emphasis in her words that demonstrated tremendous sincerity, Mrs. Fletcher recounted Mariel’s impact on her students from the podium.

“She has brought a supportive effect and a strengthening dynamic to our classroom. My students regard her as a mentor and a friend with a genuine smile. I regard her with pride as a fine young woman who aspires to do well for others,” she said.

As her speech ended, Mariel and Mrs. Fletcher shared a warm hug and laughed. Shortly after, Mariel was presented with another award, this time by the First Selectmen of Burlington and Harwinton.

Now, at the middle of the work table on the far left side of room 126, Mariel sits reflectively. To her left is Cameron with his hands crossed politely on the table. Behind them, the butterflies Mariel helped the students make adorn the wall, a subtle yet beautiful reminder of the time they have spent together this year. When asked about her plans for the future Mariel replies, “I think I’m going to take a gap year and work next year, then I’ll have time to decide what I might want to pursue.”

Jacob Honig
A figurine celebrates the school’s Unified Sports team, which pairs students with special needs and those from the student body at large in sports play. The figure stands in the STARS room, where senior Mariel Hayes helps as a peer mentor.

For a moment, there’s silence. Then she adds very candidly, “I kind of have a passion for helping people out, especially people with special needs. Maybe I’ll do something with that. I can understand what they’re going through and processing.”

At her desk Mrs. Fletcher nods her head, wearing the same proud smile she brought to awards night.

“She has a heart to (understand) what they need and what they’re feeling. It’s just amazing. The kids can’t wait until she gets here,” she says.

Then, turning directly to Mariel, she grinningly cracks a joke, quipping that if she retired right now, Mariel could take her job.

Smiling back, Mariel’s eyes widen ever so slightly. She replies: