CHARLOTTESVILLE — Alexis Jenkins pulled a heart-shaped candy box, a tiny stuffed bear attached, out of the gift bag.
The 17-year-old grinned and touched the toy’s soft fur, but her attention was quickly drawn to the next treat in the bag.
“Warheads!” she exclaimed. “I love Warheads.”
The recent Valentine’s Day celebration brought together 22 students for the kickoff of a student-led initiative at Eastern Hancock High School aimed at filling a gap in the district’s special education programming. Peer Pals provides students like Jenkins, a member of the school’s special education program, a chance to interact with their peers in a supportive environment. Junior Lainie Splater started the group with two goals in mind — allow students with special needs to hone their socialization skills while encouraging general education students to get comfortable working with those with disabilities.
Splater, 17, had heard about a similar effort — the Best Buddies program at Greenfield-Central High School — and recognized a gap in similar programming at Eastern.
It was Splater’s own experience working with students with special needs that prompted her to look for ways to make the school more inclusive. Splater serves as a cadet teacher in the essential skills classroom, where students with special needs spend their days.
She didn’t always have an interest in working with students with special needs, she said. Her first day of cadet teaching, she started out in study hall, but when no one needed help, the teacher in charge sent her to the essential skills classroom to lend a hand.
“I was scared of what could happen,” she said. “The first week, I was scared, and I didn’t really talk. As soon as I opened up, the kids welcomed me in with open arms.”
Splater knew how working with students with special needs had changed her life — she now hopes to pursue a career as a special education teacher — and she wanted to encourage other students to open themselves up to the experience.
Splater got permission from principal David Pfaff to hold a call-out meeting for students who would be interested in joining the potential group, which now meets monthly.
The effort drew support from students and staff alike.
Freshman Kyle Davis was among those who signed up to help. Davis was instantly drawn to the effort, he said; he has a friend with special needs, and spending time together over the years has been a life-changing experience.
Pfaff also helped spread the word, inviting special education teachers from Greenfield-Central in on the discussion to weigh in about how Best Buddies has helped their students.
“He was really my No. 1 supporter through it all,” Splater said.
Before the Valentine’s Day party, Splater organized a training session, so the student helpers involved would know what to do and how to help if a student with special needs had a panic attack or lashed out unexpectedly, she said.
Splater gave a speech to her fledgling group of about 30 high school students, teaching about autism spectrum disorders and how sensory overload — perhaps brought on by the crowd the party was expected to draw — can cause some individuals to become overwhelmed and aggressive.
“We will always have staff members with us, but I wanted people to know what to do just in case,” she said.
Special education teacher Kristi Heath said Splater is a natural at leading the group. Before Peer Pals began, she was already indispensable in the classroom, whether joining in celebrations or handling more difficult situations — like a student acting out.
For the first Peer Pals event, club members went out of their way to make everyone comfortable, surprising the students with small gifts and Valentine’s Day treats.
Davis, along with senior David Burris, chatted quietly with Michael Rulmer, 17, a student in the special needs program, until the time came for them to give him the presents they’d bought. Davis and Burris grabbed their selections from shopping bags stowed nearby and handed the stuffed animals to Rulmer, who hugged the soft toys to his chest.
“I’ve got a lion and a tiger,” he said. “Thank you!”
It was a touching scene for those who work with students with special needs every day.
Kelly Hoover, an instructional assistant, was excited to see so many students get involved with the Peer Pals program, she said.
“I know some of these kids are probably feeling nervous and unsure, but everyone here today was willing to step up, and for that I commend these kids,” Hoover said.
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