Students offer camaraderie, activities to children with disabilities
April 14, 2009
Vicki Morris '11, left, and Andrea Wiley '11 are co-coordinators of Special Friends, a group of 25 college volunteers who do weekly activities with children and young adults from the Carlisle community who have special needs.
They go bowling, dance to the song "YMCA" and watch Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
Twenty-five Carlisle-area children and young adults, all of whom might not ordinarily have an opportunity to share in such amusement, get to do those activities and much more thanks to an equal number of dedicated Dickinson College students.
The students, part of a group called Special Friends, are mentors to children and young adults with disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome and intellectual-development disorders.
According to Special Friends co-coordinators Vicki Morris '11 and Amanda Wiley '11, their goal is for Dickinson students to establish friendships with special-needs children and youth from the Carlisle area.
Student volunteers enhance individual lives and the lives of families in the community by mentoring children and young adults with special needs, said Mira Hewlett, interim director of religious life and community service, which oversees Special Friends.
Looking into hearts
"Many of these children have multiple medical issues, and Special Friends offers a setting where they can receive unconditional attention and appreciation," Hewlett said. "Dickinson students in this program are able to look beyond the exterior and see these children, see their hearts, and love them as they are on the inside. Mentors learn about deepening communication, working with people with impairments and the intense family situations that often occur in homes with special-needs children."
Students are matched in one-on-one friendships with their Special Friends. They meet weekly for individual activities and once a month for group outings. Activities include going to the movies, Dickinson athletics events, lunches or dinners. They pick apples, read, play sports and board games, decorate cookies, make holiday cards, go to special-occasion parties, dance and sometimes just hang out. On April 25, the students and their friends will gather for a picnic at Thornwald Park.
"Friends are so important to these kids," Morris said. "Working with people who have disabilities sheds a whole new light on life. They appreciate every little thing, including things the rest of us take for granted."
Morris, a law & policy major, began helping children with special needs when she was at Marblehead High School north of Boston. While there, she served as vice president of a local chapter of Best Buddies International, an organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities.
"It's very rewarding," said Morris. "Some of the students have siblings with disabilities. Others just want to help. We're raising awareness with our own peers."
Wiley, an international-studies major, has an older sister with special needs who has participated in various "buddy" programs.
"After seeing how much she enjoys having another friend in a world where friends are scarce, I decided I wanted to make a difference in the lives of other kids who could benefit from more peer interaction," Wiley said. "I have worked with young adults with special needs since middle school, so it was only natural for me to continue in college."
'A huge smile'
"Working with individuals with special needs is rewarding in every interaction you have with them," Wiley added. "Every time I meet up with my buddy, Jimmy, he has a huge smile on his face. His energy is contagious."
Families of children and young adults with special needs learn about Special Friends through community-service groups and word of mouth.
"We have solid connections with these families through the local agencies that serve these children," Hewlett said. "The success of the program is based upon the networks the families have developed and the commitment of Dickinson students to meet the needs of these special young people."
For more information about Special Friends, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.