Alex Patenaude’s gift for reaching out to other children was evident from the first day he started kindergarten at Nishuane.

During the first parent-teacher conference of the year, the teacher told his parents, Joel Patenaude and Judy Hoffstein, that Alex would work the room, introducing himself to each child and getting to know them.

“He was naturally generous, he was naturally warm and empathetic,” Hoffstein remembered during a sit-down interview with Montclair Local at the Patenaudes’ Park Street home on Friday.

The family believes Alex may have gone on to do something involved working with people, like being a salesperson, or perhaps a guidance counselor.

His gift with people was something that continued throughout Alex’s brief life, which was cut short last year when he accidentally overdosed on heroin at the age of 20.

In his memory, to honor his legacy of being a friend and protector to everyone he met, the Patenaudes are working with the schools to start the Alex Patenaude Compassion Project, a pilot program to teach students in the Montclair schools about social and emotional health and well-being.

Alex was the middle of three siblings, with older sister Sophie and younger brother David. All three of the Patenaude children were adopted, with Alex being adopted from an orphanage in the Ukraine when he was 10 months old.

compassion project
Alex Patenaude is seen here with the family dog, Snowy, in an undated photo. COURTESY JUDY HOFFSTEIN

When Alex was in the fifth grade at Hillside, he saw a group of students picking on a girl, and he promptly moved in to help her. His family recalled that sometimes, his friends wouldn’t know what to do in a similar situation but Alex moved in to help without hesitating.

Later, when he was 15, there was an incident at Floyd Hall. A teen from another town was using racial slurs harassing one of Alex’s friends, a mixed-race student. Alex intervened, and the teen doing the harassing punched him, and a fight started.

“The point is, Alex didn’t suffer injustices,” Joel Patenaude said.

Alex was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia while in school. The family discovered he learned best by listening, rather than reading.

He was in House Gill at Glenfield Middle School, and during his time there, he discovered a liking for politics and social studies.

After graduating from Montclair High School in 2015, Alex began attending college at the University of Arizona. The Patenaudes had chosen the college because of its SALT (Strategic Alternative Learning Therapies) program, a program aimed at helping students with learning disabilities.

However, the Patenaudes believed that attending school so far away from home wasn’t a good fit for Alex.

Sometime after starting at college, Alex was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

He also began experimenting with drugs, the family said. He worked at a restaurant and some of his co-workers were experimenting with drugs, including opioids.

Alex experienced a heroin overdose while staying overnight at a friend’s house, and died on Aug. 26, 2017.

At a memorial service at the Montclair Women’s Club, many of Alex’s friends and classmates shared memories of how he had helped them. One student said that Alex had been there for them at a time when they had been experiencing suicidal thoughts.

The Patenaudes tried to decide what to do to honor Alex’s legacy. Donating to a charity that addresses drug abuse, they said, would call too much attention to how Alex died. “What can we do that would be something positive and be about Alex?” Joel Patenaude said. Instead of it being a one-size fits-all program, the project will be tailored to each school’s magnet area. For example, during a literature class, students might ask about a character in a book and their feelings.

The Patenaudes reached out to Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak, BOE President Laura Hertzog and Masiel Rodriquez-Vars, chair of the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence. They were eventually introduced to Imad Zaheer, the director of the Clinic for Educational Practices in Schools (CEPS) at Montclair State University.

The Patenaudes made an official announcement about the project at an April 16 board of education meeting.

The program will begin in two schools, which have not been chosen, with the goal to eventually roll the program out to the other schools over the next few years.

The Patenaudes hope the program will be a tribute to their son’s memory and his compassion for others.

“When he smiled at you, there was a glow,” Hoffstein said.