School buddies – Students foster connections with special-needs peers

By Heather Wainwright/Mississippi State University

“I saw my buddy in the hall today, and she came up smiling and gave me a big hug. it made my day!” That’s the kind of elated feedback that New Albany High School Family and Consumer Sciences instructor Nannette Ballard is hearing from her students. They are volunteers in a project that pairs them as school buddies with classmates who have special needs. The mission for this project is to help the special-needs students become more integrated into the mainstream activity of the student body, mitigating the mobility and other restrictions that they must manage daily and which oftentimes limit their participation in school activities.

Ballard, who is also the sponsor of the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter, has spearheaded the evolution of this project. Previously, as part of her child-development course, Ballard arranged opportunities for her students to interact with their special-needs peers in order that they might better understand the challenges associated with having a child with disabilities.

Many of these students and those who have taken her other five courses have also been involved in the FCA with her. Combining her classroom activity with the mission-oriented FCA, Ballard initiated the buddy program this year, and the student response has been extremely enthusiastic. In fact, three to four students, most of them from her Family and Consumer Sciences courses, volunteered for every special-needs child participating in the program.

A luncheon at the NAHS Career and Technical Center for all the partnered students and the CTC staff kicked off the program. Instructor Anita Alef’s Culinary Arts students joined the effort, decorating for the occasion and managing the potluck buffet. The student-buddies exchanged friendship bracelets and played football-themed games. The gathering was so well received that Ballard plans to have monthly luncheons throughout the school year.

“My students have learned that the more they expose themselves to different people and take the time to build relationships with them, the more ‘alike’ they are than they thought,” Ballard said. During pep rallies, the volunteer partners sit with their buddies, many of whom cannot sit with their peers in the grade-designated areas. The volunteers also visit their buddies in class to help them read, sit with them in the cafeteria and celebrate birthdays or other special occasions with small gifts or cards.
The student volunteers enrolled in one of Ballard’s classes dedicate one period a month to an activity with their buddies, such as reading, teaching and assisting in creative projects or physical-fitness activities.
The special education teacher said her students were initially apprehensive about being paired with the other students, but they now eagerly anticipate the visits from their buddies and sitting together at pep rallies and assemblies.
Ballard’s approach for the Family and Consumer Sciences program includes instilling in her students a sense of community connectedness, which she hopes will make them better citizens and leaders as well as improve family stability in our society. Ballard credits the buddy program with not only breaking down barriers to foster connections, but also with helping all of the students gain confidence
and leadership skills.
Ballard believes by developing confidence in a variety of situations, these students have a better chance of achieving career goals.
At NAHS, the collaboration between career and technical education and the FCA is going a long way toward “opening up many possibilities for all of (the students),” she said.
HEATHER WAINWRIGHT is a member of the Research and Curriculum Unit at MSU