BSHS Friendship Group bonds athletes with students with disabilities
On any given Tuesday morning, it’s not uncommon to see nearly 40 athletes socializing and playing games with other students at Bonner Springs High School.
The group is considered a club and members meet weekly for 30 minutes in either the gymnasium or outside, weather permitting.
What is unique about this scene is that socializing and casually intermingling with the athletes are a little more than 10 special needs students. Students who receive special education support at BSHS stand out either socially, emotionally, or behaviorally which then interferes with the students’ ability to communicate with others.
Called the Friendship Group, the club meets weekly and promotes a community of understanding and acceptance amongst all student groups. 39 of the program’s 49 peers are involved in some type of sport at BSHS.
Freshman volleyball player Taryn Remigio joined the group while at Clark Middle School. Remigio said after joining the program she realized she would like to pursue special education as a career.
“I feel like I really made a connection,” she said, referring to the special needs students.
Remigio is currently paired with junior Erin Walter, who served as the manager for the girls basketball and softball teams last year. Walter’s disability inhibits her social and communication skills.
Remigio said that before spending regular time with Walter in Friendship Group, she wouldn’t talk to her or look her in the eye.
Now Walter does.
“They may be shy sometimes but once you get under their shell, they are amazing,” Remigio said. “They have flaws but are the funniest people you will meet.”
Junior varsity volleyball and varsity softball coach Denise Chowning, a social worker with the school, originally introduced the Friendship Group to students at the elementary and middle schools three years ago. The activities that the peers arrange for the identified students are designed to help with each student’s specific social challenges.
Chowning said Walter’s appointment as manager was the first time students had really accepted a special needs student and gotten them actively involved.
This year, it was the football players who welcomed a fellow student onto the team as a manager.
“Two of the football players (Jordan Jackson and Jason Van Maren) included him in everything they did,” Chowning said. “They may not able to participate on the field with them, but they can contribute to the team.”
Van Maren, a senior kicker and soccer player, said after participating in the program he has gained “a lot more respect for people and how they are.”
“It’s a lot easier to stand up to other people that don’t have respect because of the way that people look up to us in a way that we’re athletes and are leaders and that we can be respectful and don’t have to be the cool people,” Van Maren said.
Since the program’s adoption at the high school, a growing acceptance has spread throughout the school as more students are seeking out identified students in an effort to include them.
Where lunchtime once resembled a divided society with each student group sitting at their own respective tables and special needs students typically alone, now it is hard to tell if anyone has social issues.
“Kids used to stand by themselves and now the kids are going and getting them and saying ‘hey, join our group’ and maybe they’re not providing a lot of conversation but they are there and present,“ Chowning said. “If the captain of the volleyball team is standing up for kids with disabilities, other kids see them doing that.”
Evidence of the positive effect the club is having on both the peers and identified students isn’t going unnoticed at home.
Dawn Jackson, the mother of Jordan, a junior, and Julianne Jackson, a freshman, said she loves the program because it encourages her children to make new friends that they might not have previously gravitated toward.
“Jordan really has a soft spot for Keith (the football manager) and feels like he understands his story,” she said.
It affords the athletes the opportunity, Dawn Jackson said, to understand that everyone has their own skills that they can bring to a team.
“We got groups of kids and maybe they are not good with that but maybe they are good with rallying the troops on the sidelines,” Dawn Jackson said. “It helps with Denise being a coach because she understands the mindset of the athlete and getting them to step out and help kids.
“Both kids respect what’s being said. This program has done so much for my kids and I truly believe my kids need this program, too.”
Almost 60 students participate in the program at the high school and similar programs exist at both Bonner Springs Elementary and Clark Middle School. The program gained club status last year and will soon make its way into the school’s curriculum as an elective class offered next year.