All school year long, just outside the second-grade classroom at St. Catharine School in Bexley, a small table sits covered in colorful jigsaw pieces, the puzzle's state of completion advancing as the weeks pass.

In groups of three at a time, Mary Underwood's students head to the hallway to work on the activity, their beloved pal Andrew Reichley -- the children call him "Andy" -- on hand to help.

Reichley has assisted in Underwood's classroom for 20 years, beginning in the 1997-98 academic year by showing the second-graders how to create an end-of-the-year newsletter. It is something he continues to do each May.

The 44-year-old, who lives on Bexley Park Road across the street from the school, also hosts raffles, chooses a class mascot and reads Jeanette Winter picture books about social issues.

More important, he laughs with the students, listens to their stories and provides encouragement to the 7- and 8-year-olds -- all on the one weekday he is off from his dietary job at Mount Carmel West.

"The puzzle is more like a front," Reichley said. "The kids, I kind of mentor them. You can goof off with them. You get to know the kids."

The simplicity of puzzle building provides the second-graders a welcome distraction.

"There are so many computers out there," Reichley said. "This relaxes them, and they get to work with their mind without using technology."

Reichley has a history with St. Catharine's: He was a second-grade student of Underwood's back in 1981, when she was single and known by her maiden name of Mary Plank.

Through the years, Underwood said, her former student has become not just a volunteer but also a valuable resource, often suggesting appropriate field trips, leading activities and forging bonds.

"The sweet part is he talks at their level and is interested in their family, their hobbies," said Underwood, in her 39th year at St. Catharine.

"He has epilepsy. He has seizures daily, but the kids don't know this. The innocence makes it special," she said.

Reichley, the fourth of seven children of longtime St. Catharine parishioners Ron and Maryann Reichley, has dealt with seizures throughout his life, something that made learning and connecting with others difficult throughout his childhood.

The disorder is well-controlled with medication, but Reichley still experiences daily "auras," he said, which cause him to "space out" for a few minutes at a time.

Before Reichley's mother died in 2009, she and Underwood, a close friend of the Reichley family, brainstormed about ways Reichley might volunteer.

Underwood knew that Reichley, even at a young age, enjoyed writing and editing. As a fourth-grader, he compiled and sent to neighbors and family members the Reichley Newspaper and, later, Andrew's Almanac.

Now, he makes a similar publication with Underwood's students, who choose a name for the newsletter and write articles, which Reichley then types into his computer, designs into a newsletter and supplements it with short bios of each student.

He prints out and places in a binder a copy for each student and himself. He pays for the newsletter supplies himself.

"I've seen this give him a sense of purpose," said Sara Reichley, the youngest of the Reichley siblings. "It's been really magical to see."

What began as a way to enrich Reichley's life has blossomed into a meaningful relationship between him and the school.

In the school hallways, older students can readily identify the puzzle theme and mascot they had in the second grade.

"Most of the students' memories are of Andy and his activities, not memories of my activities," Underwood said.

"I'm a celebrity," Reichley said.

Although the current second-grade class this month completed its main 1,000-piece, candy-themed puzzle (their mascot is a stuffed Hershey's Kiss named Little Hershey), they recently began a 500-piece puzzle titled "Backyard Pups."

Eight-year-olds Simon Gilchrist and Jameson Hoffman raced to place a piece during a recent visit. Each trio of students spends about 10 minutes with Reichley before they must return to class.

Simon and Jameson, Reichley said, are two of the better puzzle builders.

"I just like putting pieces together and like how he talks to us about his sister sometimes," Simon said.

Reichley awards a prize to the student who correctly guesses the date that the class will finish a puzzle.

Although finding the right piece can sometimes be difficult, Maddie Ryan, 8, said the students can rely on Reichley to help.

Sara Reichley said her brother connects with the students in a way other adults cannot.

"One of the great things about Andy is he has such a pure, innocent heart -- and when he's with the kids, there's no judgment, just fun," she said.

Not to mention his 20-year loyalty to St. Catharine second-graders.

Reichley can't help smiling when he thinks about this accomplishment.

"When I was younger, I didn't have a lot of opportunities," he said, "but I use my talents today, like I incorporate my talents with puzzle making."

award@dispatch.com

@AllisonAWard