Sterling Heights, Warren
Mentoring group bridges gap between students
Published February 19, 2014
STERLING HEIGHTS — Sterling Heights High School junior Austin Harris is enjoying his 11th-grade year more than he predicted.
That’s because of the school’s Peer to Peer Mentoring program that pairs general education students with special needs students.
The students get together once a month for a variety of activities, and on Feb. 13, they gathered to assemble “Valentine grams” to distribute during first hour on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14. SHHS is part of Warren Consolidated Schools.
Harris sat at a table with Peer to Peer group mentors and juniors Davin Hami and Jezebel Lazar, stapling Valentine’s Day messages to bags of Swedish fish candy. Earlier in the week, students throughout the school purchased the treats and filled out messages to be delivered to their friends or significant other.
Hami, Harris and Lazar worked well together while getting the job done. Harris and Lazar also got into a brief, friendly debate about a television character.
“He’s a villain,” Harris said.
“He’s a good guy,” Lazar said.
“Austin is one of our most social kids,” Hami said.
“That’s true,” Harris smiled. “I like meeting people and making friends.”
SHHS houses a district-wide program for high school students with autism, cognitive impairments, emotional impairments, learning disabilities, speech and language impairments, and physical impairments.
Last year, a group of educators implemented Peer to Peer with about 45 special needs students and 50 general education students. It has proven to be a win-win.
“It’s in just about all the buildings in Warren Con now, so the kids have that continuum of support there,” school social worker Mary Jo Benczkowski said.
Also involved in the SHHS program are resource room teacher Emily Price, teacher consultant Kelly Wilson, and speech and language therapist Katrina Djokic.
Under the mentors’ care, the special needs students “learn to act appropriately and build friendships in the building,” Benczkowski said. “They have other kids to talk to.”
“The second you say ‘hi’ to them, it makes their day,” Hami said, adding he has noticed general education students not in Peer to Peer spending more time with the special needs students. “Once they saw us talking to the others, they started eating lunch with them and stuff. I feel like I’m a big brother to them, and I love seeing them feel like they are a part of our school.”
For instance, at the school’s pep assembly this year, the special needs students sat with the regular education students instead of alone.
“I’ve had parents say, ‘For the first time, my child has friends in school,’” Benczkowski said. “The (special needs) students love the program. They call (the mentors) the big kids.”
And every session ends with the kids playing a game called “Stella Ella Ola.” Modeled after the game Hot Potato, the students form a circle and gently slap hands while singing. The person whose hand is the last one touched when the singing stops is out of the game.
Students volunteer to become mentors and find it very rewarding.
“I enjoy everyone in the Peer to Peer group,” mentor and senior Sabrina Rosneck said. “Everyone is so nice and so much fun to be around.”
Special needs student Andrea Desrosiers echoed that.
“I enjoy it because I enjoy the people,” the senior said. “I like to be involved in activities.”
Sarah Itoh, also in the special needs program, worked hard to get the Valentine grams ready.
“That person will get a surprise,” said Itoh, who bought one for her boyfriend JP. “It’s my first time doing it.”
The special needs students have their own wing, and some students also have classes with the general education students. Upon leaving the high school, the special needs students receive a certificate of completion.
“That will get them into Macomb Community College,” Benczkowski said.
The group received a grant this year to pay for a trip to Camp Tamarack in northern Oakland County. The Valentine grams activity served as a fundraiser to raise money for busing expenses to get to the camp.
For more information on Peer to Peer, visit www.peer2peermentor.weebly.com.
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