With boxes of pizza littering a side table and an episode of “The Simpsons” playing in the background, local high school students from Sacred Heart Academy and Notre Dame teamed up with Yale students to make Thanksgiving baskets for needy families in New Haven Sunday afternoon.

The event was one of several monthly group activities run by the Hillhouse Scholars Program, a community outreach organization that pairs Yalies with high school students based on academic merit and helps fund their high school tuition.

HSP was founded in 2003 by Yale Law School students Thomas Lehrman LAW ’04 and Brian O’Donoghue LAW ’04 as both a scholarship foundation and a mentoring program. Since its inception, the privately funded program has contributed over $150,000 to enable HSP scholars to attend the Sacred Heart and Notre Dame schools.

“[HSP] is a terrific program,” said Doreen Spencer, the mother of program scholar Shannon Spencer. “They provide $3,000 a year towards Shannon’s tuition. And the money is great, but I love that she has a mentor.”

Spencer added that while HSP is beneficial for the scholars, the mentors also seem to enjoy interacting with the high school students.

The mentors are usually students from Yale’s graduate and professional schools. HSP executive director Monique Marez ’07 said there is typically very little undergraduate involvement because their schedules tend to conflict more with the scholars’ schedules.

Mentor Joe Pull LAW ’06 said he became interested in HSP when he saw friends from the Law School with their scholars at a Christmas party. HSP is a good way to give back to the community because the program makes it easy to get involved, Pull said, which is an important consideration for busy graduate students.

Mentors and scholars meet about once a month, aside from the group activities that bring together all of the program participants. Mentors may take their scholars out to eat, to the movies, to sporting events, or to various places around campus.

“We’re basically just hanging out,” said Don Perretta ’06, one of the few undergraduate mentors.

Parents said that in addition to providing scholars with mentors, HSP gives students a chance to take advantage of Yale’s broad resources.

“[HSP] has been great for my son,” said Leigh Anne Salatto, the mother of scholar and Notre Dame junior Tom Salatto. “It’s great that they let the kids come down and be a part of a college community. It gives them something to think about.”

Mentor Matt Cabeen GRD ’09 said he talks to his scholar about academics, college and SAT tests, but mentoring sessions are primarily an opportunity for the scholars to talk about anything that is on their minds.

Cabeen has taken his scholar, Roland Green, a sophomore at Notre Dame, to different Yale sporting events and has gone to some of Roland’s soccer and basketball games as well.

“It is great to know that you are having some sort of positive impact on these student’s lives,” Cabeen said. “I think it is also valuable for the students to have someone taking an active interest in their lives, for them to have positive role models who can give them access to Yale’s resources.”

Green said he likes HSP because it has given him the opportunity to experience life beyond his high school. He also said that through his involvement with the University, he hopes to establish contacts that may prove useful later in his life.

Scholar Ron Criscuolo, a junior at Notre Dame, agreed that HSP is a fun and rewarding program.

“The whole mentor thing is really helpful,” he said. “It’s nice to talk to someone going through the same things I am, but in college.”

Such positive responses are encouraging, said Marez, who hopes to expand HSP to its full capacity by next year.

Funding for HSP comes entirely from individual, small-granting donors, and none of the money for the program comes directly from Yale, Marez said. She said HSP is able to bring in such funds is by allowing donors to see where their money is going.

“Something that is very different about our program is that because HSP is so small, the donators can see the students develop, rather than just donating to a large, anonymous organization,” Marez said.