By Jo Mathis
AAPS District News Editor
Landon Adamski and Mary Bashshur might never have become friends if it weren’t for the AAPS Peer to Peer Mentoring Program.
As it is, the Scarlett Middle School students they get together at school twice a week to study, play games, and talk.
“I learned that I can really make a difference even just doing little things,” said Mary, an eighth grader who plans to continue to volunteer as a mentor in high school. “It’s been an eye-opening experience to see what you can actually accomplish, instead of just saying you’d like to help.”
Landon said he appreciates Mary’s help with his homework.
“Mary works hard helping me even though I suck at math,” he said, to Mary’s protests that he “does not!”
“The program has been a joy for my son,” said Landon’s mother, Vanessa Adamski. “He just loves the parties and getting together with his peer mentor, Mary. She has been an incredible influence on him.”
Peer mentoring makes the difference
The AAPS Peer to Peer Mentoring Program facilitates interactions between students who are typically developing, and those with significant social and communication challenges, to the benefit of all, explains Gloria O’Neill, a retired AAPS social worker who now coordinators the program.
Peer to peer mentoring serves AAPS students in grades K-12, and most schools have implemented the program. Students with an IEP and significant social and communication needs are eligible for the program.
O’Neill said the mentees feel included and accepted while gaining access to the general education curriculum and social skills modeling from peers. Meanwhile, the mentors make new friends, develop leadership skills, have fun, become positive role models, and become more empathetic.
In one case, a mentor with poor attendance was committed to attending a mentee’s adaptive PE class. As a result, his attendance improved dramatically.
Peer mentors will participate in A2 Unified Day next week at Huron
When Deak Swearingen and Gloria O’Neill attended last year’s first A2 Unified Day at Pioneer High School, each witnessed a dream fulfilled.
A2 Unified Day was Swearingen’s idea of demonstrating unity on a large scale, and it was the dream of O’Neill to celebrate the AAPS Peer to Peer Mentoring Program through participation in athletic events.
Each believes it’s all a win-win for AAPS students of all abilities.
“Special Olympics attempts to provide similar experiences with Special Olympics and their Unified Sports program, but not all students have the luxury to do after school programs, or travel to events either for logistical purposes or for financial reasons,” said Swearingen, an AAPS adaptive physical education teacher consultant. “We just thought it would be nice to give all students the opportunity to show their skills, and to be cheered on—if only for a race.”
This year, the two-day sports competition will be held May 19 and 20 at Huron High School. Athletes will include special education students and the friends they’ve made in the AAPS Peer to Peer Mentoring Program.
A parent’s perspective
Ruby Hancock, who has Down Syndrome, will again participate in the A2 Unified games next week.
“What an amazing experience for her!” says her mother, Andrea Brown. “I couldn’t be more impressed with the peer mentor students who step up to mentor the special needs students. There are always way more peer mentors than mentees, which speaks volumes about the character and generosity of kids in the Ann Arbor Public School System.”
She said the peers genuinely love and look forward to this event, and the kids they mentor are eagerly anticipate the day.
“The event promotes physical activity, compassion, friendship, camaraderie, and most importantly normalizes connections between regular and special kids,” she said. “Events like this make my daughter more comfortable and at ease in the real world because peer mentors know that special kids are in most ways just like they are.”
Adds Ruby, who is finishing her junior year at Skyline: “I love my peer mentors! Unified Day is so fun. My friends help me be a better athlete.”
Mentoring: Can you be a good friend?
O’Neill says that qualifying to be a peer mentor to a student with special needs gets down to one question: Do you know how to be a good friend?
Mentors are trained in how to best communicate with the student with whom they’re matched, and peers meet whenever it makes sense during the school day.
In elementary school, the mentees and mentors may eat lunch or have recess together, or visit each other’s classroom for special events, meet for music, art, and physical education.
At the middle and high school level, there are peer connection classes, adapted PE classes, Project Unify clubs, and advisory time.
A2 Unified Day shows district’s dedication to inclusion—on a large scale
Swearingen said A2 Unified Day is the result of his vision of how the community of Ann Arbor could celebrate on a huge level the bonds that are molded between mentors and mentees.
“A2 Unified Day combines athletics and movement while allowing students to socialize with friends and classmates,” he said. “
O’Neill predicts A2 Unified Day will again be heart-warming.
“All the schools are cheering each other on, and they bring their banners,” she said. “We just see kids having fun. That’s what made a difference to me – when you look out and see kids on the field just having fun and engaging in physical activity.”
The itinerary of A2 Unified Day for elementary students on Friday, May 20 is here: ElementaryUnifiedDay.
To see the schedule for the secondary students on Thursday, May 19 click here: Summary of Unified Day 2016 Secondary.