Pickerington high school students who are working to get back on track toward graduation this school year will serve as mentors to students attending elementary schools in a partnership program administrators said they believe will benefit both groups.

For the first time, the Pickerington Alternative School this year is partnering with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Fairfield County to recruit students to serve as mentors to students at Fairfield and Tussing elementary schools.

The project is part of an agency objective to enlist Fairfield County high school students to serve as volunteer "bigs" to younger "littles" in their communities.

The alternative school joins Lancaster and Berne Union high schools, which implemented the mentorship program last year, and Big Brothers Big Sisters officials said they want to extend it to all Fairfield County high schools within five years.

"We take individuals that we consider a trusted friend and we match them to someone in the elementary school that needs that trusted friend," said Jolyn Pugh, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Fairfield County.

Pugh and Pickerington Alternative School Principal Jim Campbell, as well as other administrators and staff at the school and in the district, believe the program will benefit both elementary students who need positive role models, as well as alternative school students trying to get back on track toward graduation.

The alternative school opened this year with 85 students. It is designed to be a dropout-prevention and credit-recovery program where each student has individualized tools and opportunities needed to graduate.

Students, most of whom are 16 to 21 years old, are given individualized graduation plans to help them graduate and reach their future goals.

"This is exciting," Campbell told a classroom of students Sept. 11. "This is something that is going to give you an opportunity to grow as an individual and also change the life of a young student."

To participate, alternative school students must meet academic, attendance and behavioral standards at school, and they'll be required to complete a Big Brothers Big Sisters interview and mentor training.

Participants then agree to spend one class period per week with their "littles," which is the word use to describe the younger students they are mentoring.

In return, alternative school students will receive an elective class credit and school officials said participation is something that will bolster transcripts for those applying to college or seeking jobs or opportunities in the military after graduation.

"Some of our mentors are individuals that have been in the place of where those littles are," Pugh told the older students. "Some of our littles have some difficulties with their academics.

"They might be struggling getting along with their friends and their peers on the playground, they might have some stuff going on at home that's really difficult for them -- possibly a divorce, a death in the family, parents that are incarcerated. Maybe (they have) two parents that are doing absolutely everything right and trying their hardest, but something still is just missing from the household to make things better."

To help explain the virtues of being a Big Brother, Bill Haase, a 76-year-old Lancaster resident spoke about his decision to become a one two months ago to a boy who was struggling with being bullied and other issues socially and at school.

Haase initially worried he was too old to be a mentor but quickly came to appreciate and grow from his role.

"I have benefitted more or as much as (my little) has benefitted from a two-month connection we have made," he said. "You will be amazed at the end at how they will jump on those little bits of information you can share, not as a mother or father, but as a Big Sister or Big Brother, somebody that's kind of been there.

"You're going to make a connection, and you're going to feel like you are actually impacting another person. There's nothing that feels that good."

Although the program isn't mandatory, about 40 alternative school students expressed interest in participating, said Michelle Hurd, a counselor at the school.

Campbell said the new program is another initiative at Pickerington Alternative School to "meet students where they are" and prepare them for life after high school.

He said students have opportunities to connect with and help younger peers because many have gone through their own struggles, but are working to become better students and people.

"This is another step that we're putting in place that's going to provide you that opportunity to be a leader, to make a difference, to learn about service work," Campbell said.

"I think if you think about some of the things you've experienced as a student or growing up, you have a story.

"You have experience that can have an impact on someone that's like-minded."