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Students find help for their disabilities

Classes have let out at Northeast Elementary School in Waltham, and several fifth-graders head to an upstairs classroom to unwind. Working with a group of Bentley College students, some create art projects out of construction paper, scissors, and tape. Others huddle around a game of Sorry!, jumping and bumping one another's pawns.

It may look like typical after-school down time. But even through these casual activities, the Bentley students hope they are making an important connection with their young counterparts.

The program, called Project Eye-to-Eye, pairs college mentors with learning disabilities and elementary school students who also have learning disabilities. The aim of the weekly meetings, organizers and school officials say, is to build the younger students' self-esteem and to provide role models for those who may feel frustrated by difficulties in the classroom.

''What better way to say to a kid 'You're smart, you can do this?' " said Diane Krueger, Northeast's assistant principal.

Project Eye-to-Eye is a growing national program that is making its Massachusetts debut this semester in Waltham. Two students developed the program at Brown University in 1997, after realizing their success could inspire others.

''We made it to Brown," said Jonathan Mooney, the program's 28-year-old cofounder and executive director. ''Our experience could matter to other kids."

Mooney has struggled with dyslexia, and did not learn to read until he was 12. After graduating from Brown, he began expanding the program, and has introduced it in 11 schools nationwide.

Because of its open-ended nature, art is often a focus of the meetings in Waltham.

''It helps them to express themselves in a way that has no right or wrong answers," said Lauren McHugh, 21, who helps to coordinate the program at Bentley, and who did not discover that she had a learning disability until she was in college.

''The regular school curriculum assumes everyone processes things the same way," she added.

The students, who grapple with difficulties such as comprehension and attention deficit issues, also talk about their experiences in school and the challenges they've faced, sometimes sharing ways for handling stress when they become overwhelmed. The mentors say those will always be important tools for those who have learning disabilities.

''It's an ongoing problem throughout your life," said Tristan Ostronic, 21, a Bentley student.

The fifth-graders, who come from both Northeast and nearby MacArthur Elementary School, were shy when asked by a reporter what they were working on.

Claire Scaltreto, whose son Anthony has difficulty with reading comprehension, said she liked the idea of the program. Anthony had brought the Sorry! game, and he guided Ostronic and another Bentley student, Richard Heller, through a round.

''It's good for the kids to see that there's someone else," said Scaltreto, who added that Anthony is starting to think about college. ''It builds up their self-esteem so they don't feel different."

Just as the program benefits the elementary school students, organizers say it also allows the college students a chance to see how they can make a difference.

''I thought it was a great opportunity . . . to help them learn more about themselves and their own abilities," said Christopher ''Chip" Kennedy, Bentley's coordinator of disability services.

Mooney hopes the college students in Project Eye-to-Eye will eventually form a community of adults with learning disabilities, who might be able to advocate for the learning-disabled in college and in the workplace.

For now, the Bentley students say they are happy to be providing some guidance that many say could have been helpful to them when they were younger.

''When I was in school I didn't have any example to look up to," said Heller, 22. ''I sort of figured either you're smart or you're not."

Emily Shartin can be reached at eshartin@globe.com.

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