TORRINGTON >> Anyone who gets close to them knows teachers and coaches accept far longer hours and more responsibilities than they can ever be paid for.
For some, that isn’t enough. The fire burns to find new ways to help.
Jada Mattiello, an English teacher and track coach at Torrington High School is such a person.
“Getting my hands dirty — that’s who I am,” she says. “I was born and raised in North Dakota; that’s how I was raised.”
For Mattiello, “getting her hands dirty” means diving into the whole experience of life, taking as many students with her as she can when they are ready.
The definition of that process began 10 years ago when she coached a high school track team in Arizona.
“I wanted the kids to step out of their comfort area. I told them, ‘Good for you that you compete (in track and field), but there’s so much more out there.”
When she arrived in Torrington six years ago, she searched for a medium from which to share the view with hand-picked seniors on the Red Raider track and field team.
All high school kids have problems, great or small, silly or serious.
“I wanted to get these kids to meet kids who live with a far worse predicament than they do,” she says.
Mattiello’s first try was a connection with the Hartford Children’s Hospital, but they wouldn’t allow visits.
For a while, that meant a fall-back position that recognizes modern reality: “If you cuss in my class, you throw a quarter in my jar. At the end of the year, they buy gifts for the kids, along with a few bucks of their own.”
Two years later, Mattiello made a firmer connection, with the Ronald McDonald House in New Haven — the only one in Connecticut.
Across the street from the Yale-New Haven Hospital, it’s for families who can’t stay at a hotel while their kids are being treated for degenerative diseases in the hospital.
The facility handles up to five families at a time and it’s a place where eight-to-12 Torrington track seniors can connect in person.
“Late in the (track and field) season, we buy the gifts. Then we go down and spend time with the kids, making arts and crafts…finger painting…making cards.”
“(Torrington track and field) boys, especially, have a really hard time. They immerse themselves and they’re really shaken by these kids who have a really tough time, when (the boys’) tough time is finishing my workout.
“They look forward to the trip because it’s so right in front of them, but you also see the apprehension.
“There’s a lot of silence and thinking on the way home.
“It’s something that goes way beyond walking for diabetes or putting in a 5K run for a cause.”
Call it “getting your hands dirty.”
Meghan Monroy, a 2010 Torrington High School graduate, was one of those early travelers.
A soccer player and distance runner (800 meters, 1,600, 4 x 800 relay), she went with the boys and girls distance teams as a senior.
“It was an eye-opening and rewarding experience,” says Monroy, now a senior at UConn-Storrs. “I didn’t know what to expect. (The Ronald McDonald House) is a gorgeous facility. There were families from all over in scary times for their kids. There was a family from Puerto Rico. There was a four-year-old who just had an eye removed because of cancer.”
Did it have a long lasting effect?
“Four years later, I can still tell you about that little girl. Coach Mattiello taught us to give back to the community. In two weeks, on spring break, I’m traveling to Oklahoma on a natural disaster relief trip with UConn’s community outreach group,” said Monroy who’s a molecular and cell biology major planning to move on to graduate school and, eventually, research in the biotech industry.
“Coach Mattiello instilled the pay-it-forward concept in us because we’re so fortunate,” said Monroy.
Mattiello extends the concept to her own kids, now seven and nine.
“We had a 45-minute drive to school when they were small. Every day, we passed a cemetery and every day the same lady was there. She was obviously grieving and we just wanted to make a connection. We brought her flowers.
“I took the kids to Newtown a while ago to show them that evil does not prevail.”
And, finally, to herself.
“I want to expose kids to realities that are so much greater than they are. I ask myself ‘What can I do to expose my kids?’ ‘What can I do to expose my athletes?
“Then it dawned on me: I’ve never done anything to give myself the same reality. I decided I’ve got to give back and I’ve got to give back on my own. The kids are old enough now to understand.”
Mattiello signed up with a non-profit organization named Cross Cultural Solutions that allows people to act as if they were short-term Peace Corps members.
In 2015, she’ll spend two weeks, in late June and early July, in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, teaching English and spending time with kids with HIV.
Participants pay their own way. The trip will cost Mattiello somewhere in the neighborhood of $6,000.
“They provide meals and a safe home.
“I’ll go into the school system and teach English. And I’ll offer comfort. If that means I hold their hands for an hour, that’s what I’ll do. If I can chat with them and show them someone cares, that’s what I’ll do.
“It’s my time now to decide just how dirty I want to be.”
Anyone interested in helping Mattiello defray her expenses can contact her at Torrington High School.