This is a blog post by Liz Reinemo, faculty sponsor of Perfect Pals, Nantucket High School’s mentoring club for students with disabilities. Liz works with Kim Horyn, Director of the Nantucket Autism Speaks Resource Center.
I am both honored and humbled to be the faculty sponsor of Perfect Pals, a group committed to ensuring that all kids have a friend and have some fun! I became the faculty sponsor by chance, after a conversation with Kim Horyn, the director of Nantucket Autism Speaks Resource Center, who was wondering if I knew of any students who would like to volunteer their time to work with students with disabilities. I immediately jumped at the opportunity to form a group, because I knew several of my students would reap the rewards of befriending students with disabilities. Hence, Perfect Pals was born.
I was both nervous and excited by the thought of Perfect Pals. I dreamed of what could be, and I explored all of the potential roadblocks. It was important to me that the students involved were not let down. At our first meeting we had thirty interested high school kids, eager to check out what the club was all about. I was so pleased that these students, who already had a full plate, juggling rigorous academics, athletics, theater and extra-curricular activities, found the time and showed a sincere interest. Word spread and at our first event, a Halloween Mixer, we had over thirty students come to help. Watching my students outside of the classroom, and for some their comfort zone, has been a rewarding experience. They are not looking to stand out as they can in the classroom, or are cocky like they can be on the athletic field, they are just themselves, kind, effervescent kids with big hearts who are humbled by the experience to help. These students go above and beyond working in Perfect Pals. I am lucky to be able to watch these kids reach out and sit with their pals at lunch, invite them to homecoming activities, read a book with them in the library and volunteer their time to babysit some of the younger pals. Countless stories have emerged from the school community about what a difference our club makes and it is because of the dedication these students feel to their pals that keeps the club thriving.
It doesn’t get much better than watching a child’s face light up at finding a friend to talk Star Wars with or make a Valentine’s Day card for their favorite teacher or ride in the homecoming float. It is especially rewarding when these students have disabilities, and for some this is their first taste at hanging out and being one of the gang. Watching the pals play ping pong with their mentors or win a game of Uno is sheer awesomeness. At a recent movie morning the pals got to dictate the events, everything from Jenga to coloring to table hockey. The diversity in the room is heartwarming. Every child is the same and is treated the same, and feels safe, loved, and accepted. This is the second year of Perfect Pals and the growth in the students with disabilities has been remarkable. At first many of our pals did not want their parents to leave. Now, they are excited when they see their friends and feel comfortable telling mom or dad that they will see them later. Being a part of their growth process is wonderful.
I am truly grateful to the parents of these children. I have been stopped in the supermarket or at a game and listened to different versions of the same story. The moral is basic and straightforward: Perfect Pals has made a difference in my child’s life. My son/daughter can come to these events and be him/herself. Nobody is there to judge them, and they can interact with a diverse group of kids, everyone from the prom queen to the hockey star, or head of the class. There are no barriers. My child feels accepted and has a blast! That sums up the mission statement of Perfect Pals. By providing activities and forming meaningful friendships within the club, parents are given much needed respite. They do not need to continually entertain their child. The students are interacting within their peer groups and learning life’s lessons.
I am a better teacher and friend from my work with Perfect Pals. I watch my students step away from their friends and make new friends stepping out of their comfort zones, learning strategies of how to engage some of our students with special needs. I see the value of this club reflected in the delightful smiles of our pals who have discovered that they belong. I witness the relief of parents who know that this club and its work is benefitting ALL children. At the end of the day, it feels good to be part of something so great.
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