OAKLAND — Cassidy Charette was only weeks away from meeting her first Little Sister when she was killed in a hayride accident last October in Mechanic Falls.

The 17-year-old junior at Oakland’s Messalonskee High School had lobbied for a school-based Big Brothers Big Sisters program and helped raise more than $5,200 for mentoring programs in the area, but her life was cut short before she was able to see her efforts come to fruition.

In the wake of her death, her friends, family and classmates pulled together and made her vision a reality, creating a school-based BBBS program between Messalonskee High students and children at Williams Elementary and Atwood Primary schools, both in Oakland.

Big Brothers Big Sisters pairs older students and adults with children who need role models. In some cases, the relationships help the children stay in school, or make them less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol as they grow older.

The program also is also helping the Messalonskee community grieve, said Alex Gaeth, the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid Maine.

“This is really fulfilling Cassidy’s vision,” Gaeth said. “It gives her friends and the community a way to remember her and come together to provide a service in her memory.” The school district, Regional School Union 18, comprises Oakland, Belgrade, Sidney, China and Rome.

Through the new program, high school students meet with the younger children once a week for an hour. The pairs can play games, study homework, do arts and crafts, or just talk.

The hope is to form a strong bond between the older and younger students that can last for years, Gaeth said. The pairs are expected to keep in touch over summer vacation and then reconnect at the start of the school year.

On Wednesday afternoon, a boisterous group of Bigs and Littles gathered together in the gymnasium of Williams Elementary School on Pleasant Street, shooting basketballs, practicing gymnastics and playing teamwork building games.

Conner Garland, who was Charette’s boyfriend and was injured in the same accident, was helping his Little Brother, Brandon, shoot hoops.

While he knew how much Charette had invested in bringing the program to Messalonskee, Garland, of Belgrade, said he hadn’t intended to join. After her death, however, he decided that helping to organize the program and signing up as a Big was the best way he could carry on her vision.

“I really did it to keep the memory of Cassidy alive,” Garland said.

While he’s met with Brandon only a few times since the program started last month, Garland said he already has formed a strong bond with the fourth-grader. They both like sports such as soccer and basketball, and they enjoy learning about history in school.

“He looks up to me a lot,” Garland said. “I was a lot like him when I was a kid.”

“It’s cool that they matched us up so well,” he said. “I don’t think I could have found a more perfect buddy.”

Beyond making a new friendship, the weekly visits have given him a tangible way to remember Charette, Garland said.

“It’s nice to have a little reminder of her every day I come down here,” Garland said. “That helps keep her memory alive for me,”

Garland was far from the only Messalonskee student to sign up for the program. The organization was almost overwhelmed by the 105 students who signed up almost as soon as the program launched, about one in eight of the students in the high school.

“That’s pretty much a record for us,” said Denise Gianini, the program manager that runs Messalonskee BBBS.

So far, 17 students have been paired with younger children, and she hopes to bring the number to 30, Gianini said. Making a pairing includes an exhaustive interview process and a careful matching between the interests and personalities of the two students, she said.

She has been “amazed” at the speed with which the older and younger students have formed close bonds, Gianini said.

“I can already see how the friendships have grown and developed,” she said.

Colby Charette, Cassidy’s younger brother, was the first Big Brother to be paired through the program.

While his Little left the school district after the program started, he has stuck with it, coming to the weekly sessions as kind of a substitute Big Brother, he said on Wednesday.

His family has a strong volunteering streak, and he intended to sign up as an adult Big Brother when he was old enough, but jumped at the opportunity to join the Messalonskee program, Colby said. He was stunned by the number of other students who signed up, he added.

“I was amazed,” he said. “There were people that I’d never met before signing up for this.”

To help support the program, organizers are holding a Bowl for Cassidy’s Sake fundraiser. Teams from across RSU 18 already are forming and beginning to raise money in advance of the event, planned for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, April 11, at Sparetime Recreation Center in Waterville. For information or to register a team, go to www.bbbdmidmaine.org.

The time of the bowling event has been corrected from an earlier version of this story.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

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