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Breaking boundaries

Despite challenges, a program that pairs disabled and non-disabled students is completing a successful year at Walker Middle School.

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 20, 2001


photo
[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Jenna Martinez, 13, holds Matthew Davis's hand while walking him to lunch after their television production class.
ODESSA -- At the beginning of the school year, Mallory Rice would see M'rhea Wilson only in gym class. Once the bell rang, they returned to their separate worlds.

In a matter of months, those boundaries have changed.

Although they do not socialize outside school or share their most intimate secrets, the Walker Middle School eighth-graders talk regularly now. The teenagers seem glad to know one another.

"I'll see him in the halls a couple times a day and I'll stop and talk with him for a couple of minutes," Mallory said about M'rhea, who has emotional problems. "I'll usually ask him how he's behaving in class because that's one of his problems."

M'rhea also had positive things to say. "We talk," he said, remarking on a butterfly garden project they researched together on the Internet. "We do a lot of fun things together."

Students with disabilities are mainstreamed more than ever in classes, but such close contact was rare before the start of the year. Then, several months ago, the school initiated a Best Buddies program, the first at a Hillsborough County middle school. The international program pairs up disabled and non-disabled students in hopes of fostering friendships.

About 30 kids signed up to be so-called "peer buddies" to kids with disabilities, taking a chance that many adults never would. Best Buddies seeks to break down stereotypes and fears that often leave the disabled feeling isolated and unliked. As the school year draws to a close, students and adults are looking back on the program's first year with a critical eye.

From the first awkward encounters, the effort has had rough spots. Many students did not bond, participants acknowledge. Some did not even exchange phone numbers or e-mail addresses. Pairings that did lead to friendships were not always as strong as had been hoped.

But no one is talking about nixing the effort. Participants say they have become more open-minded and insist they can make the program better.

Ideas list for next year

"When I first went in, I wasn't sure if I was up to it," seventh-grader Katie Cannon said during the group's end-of-the-year field trip to a local bowling alley. But, "I learned to be friends with everybody, not just with some people."

"They need someone to talk to," said seventh-grader Alex Yusca, who saw the program as a way to help him understand a cousin with Down's Syndrome. "They are regular people," added Alex, a boisterous teenager who has formed one of the group's tighter bonds with his buddy, an autistic student named Emmanuel Truxton.

With help from Exceptional Student Education (ESE) specialist Kim Carlisle, students now talk about structuring the program so the pairs spend more time together. Monthly breakfasts are one suggestion. Student coordinators recently compiled an ideas list that included keeping notebooks that could be passed back and forth, writing notes (as one member does) and communicating by e-mail.

"The kids are supposed to carry their weight . . . be a friend, slip a note," said Carlisle, whose daughter, Erin, is a peer buddy at Walker.

"And, of course, the kids in ESE are not going to be getting a lot of notes. Because it's new . . . I think the kids are struggling with how to interact. You know, people are afraid of people with disabilities and how to deal with them."

Carlisle said she is impressed by the teenagers' interest, recalling how fascinated the group was by a guest speaker she brought in to talk about his paralysis and how, despite the disability, he managed to live a full life. Best Buddies normally focuses on people with physical disabilities, but Carlisle insisted on including emotionally disabled students, such as Wilson, as well.

Surprises have come from the most unexpected places, she said. Alex is one of them.

"He's just unbelievable, the kindness that comes out of him, because he's just one of your typically, bullying, seventh-grade boys," she said. "I have definitely seen the regular kids grow."

In addition to the official pairings, able-bodied teens in the group are reaching out to others with disabilities.

Lisa Kennedy, a seventh-grader, said that her participation in Best Buddies has helped break down a lot of barriers for her. After a recent TV production class, she helped classmate Matthew Davis, who is blind, walk to his next class.

"Now me and Matthew have a lot more to talk about," she said, "because he knows I'm interested."

Looking to expand

Best Buddies was conceived in 1987 by a Georgetown University student who envisioned service-minded college students working with the mentally retarded. Since 1989, an estimated 125,000 people have participated. The program has expanded to other adults, high schoolers and middle schoolers.

The program is actively reaching out to schools in Hillsborough, said Tampa area program manager Shervin Rassa. Five high schools joined up this spring, raising the total in Hillsborough and Pinellas to 15. Dowdell and Eisenhower middle schools have signed up for new programs beginning in August.

"We're looking to expand to Pasco, Sarasota and Manatee, also," Rassa said.

Overall, he said, the program is successful because it tries to pair up students with common interests, he said.

"I feel the program works because there always has been a gap between regular ed students and special education students," he said. "It allows children with developmental disabilities to have friendships that most normal people have."

But the situation involving Matthew and fellow Walker student Ryan Burke illustrates the challenges.

In addition to his blindness, Matthew has a mild form of autism called Asberger's Syndrome. Both students said the pairing got off to a decent start. They talked about their interests at a getting-to-know party in March.

"My buddy was nice," Matthew said. "He helped get my food."

But when it came time to set the stage for further contact, the dynamics broke down over the very obstacles the program is designed to overcome.

Matthew said that Ryan never got his phone number or e-mail address.

Ryan said he thought Matthew was going to get his phone number and e-mail from another student who helps Matthew get to class. That didn't happen and, making matters worse, the two were in different grades.

"It was challenging for me to communicate with him," Ryan said.

Still, both boys said they look forward to participating in Best Buddies next year.

Matthew is excited about being paired next year with fellow seventh-grader Katie Cannon. In fact, when he found out they would not be buddies this year, he let everyone know how disappointed he was.

Carlisle said the coordinators purposely tried to pair him up with someone else so he would meet new people. Sherri Davis, Matthew's mother, believes his Asberger's Syndrome is tougher to overcome than his blindness.

"I think the whole idea is wonderful . . . because Matthew has trouble making friends sometimes," Mrs. Davis said. "Matthew expects you to understand everything he needs. He wants to be social. He just doesn't know how."

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