It was 5:45 p.m. on a Thursday, but the cafeteria of Sanderson High School in Raleigh was abuzz with activity. Teens in togas and tutus flitted back and forth, hanging streamers and taping grinning ghosts and grimacing skulls to the walls. Platters of donated snacks and cupcakes were set out on tables in one corner, and a DJ started pumping out music at the other end of a large space cleared of tables and stools.
By 6:10, a couple of dozen students were already dancing when a tall young man named Richard came bounding in wearing a sailor hat. He headed straight for the DJ, jumping in time to the beat. “He won’t stop bouncing all night,” said one of the chaperoning teachers, who later approached him occasionally to encourage him to drink from a bottle of water.
This scene of Halloween joy was the creation of the Sanderson PALS Club. Passing Along Lifelong Smiles is completely student-driven, said Ginger Hamrick, one of Sanderson’s AU-IV teachers. More than 60 students are in PALS, providing friendship and educational support to students in the school’s two self-contained classrooms for students with autism. They also do a social event about once a month, like the Halloween party. Hamrick said these social activities are important, too. The students with disabilities might be past the age when most of society thinks it is appropriate for them to trick or treat, but they still love Halloween. PALS students are always looking for ways to provide joy to the students in the special education classes.
“I could tell you a story about any one of these kids that would bring a tear to your eye,” Hamrick said. She made good on that promise, telling of a PALS member who was receiving about 14 calls a day from one of her students with autism. She told the member that she could talk to her student about not calling so often, but he said it wasn’t necessary. “He’s never had anybody to call before,” he said.
“They’re building friendships,” Hamrick said. Her students learn about things that matter from the PALS members, such as personal space or how to build a relationship. The PALS members play a huge part in Sanderson’s AU program, Hamrick said. “I like them to learn things that they’ll use forever.”
“A unique opportunity”
PALS is unique in that it brings kids from all of the schools’ social groups together, Hamrick said. Some of the PALS members come to eat lunch with her students every day. Jacquelyn Hedrick, the PALS president, comes every morning before school, during lunch, and to act as a teacher assistant for third period. “She is really passionate about these kids,” Hamrick said.
Jacquelyn, a junior, started coming to PALS as a freshman even though she had never been around people with special needs and was a little uncomfortable at first. She decided to stay when the students with autism started calling her by name. “I’ve always wanted to reach out and help people, and I’ve been presented with such a unique opportunity,” she said. PALS gives the students who usually are in self-contained classrooms an opportunity to see how their peers without disabilities interact with each other, she said.
Hamrick said that the PALS members recognize that they are benefiting from the group, too. They enjoy getting to know the students with autism and becoming friends over shared interests. “My guys treat everybody like rock stars when they see them in school,” Hamrick said. Who wouldn’t love that?
The PALS Club participated as a team in this year’s Triangle Run/Walk for Autism, and on their team page, Jacquelyn wrote: “PALS Club is often the reason we get out of bed to come to school in the morning and it’s the reason we’re excited to come back over the summer. Spending time with our PALS is the highlight of our day. We have made amazing friendships, but we have also seen our students grow in their social skills through interacting with each other and with PALS. It truly makes a significant difference in our lives and in theirs.” (We thank PALS for raising $1,680, helping even more individuals affected by autism!)
Two rules: Be respectful. Have fun.
PALS has just two rules, Hamrick said. Be respectful. Have fun. “I wanted everyone who was there to be there because they wanted to be,” she said.
Jacquelyn said for her, the most fun is when they all go out into the community like when they attended the State Fair together last week. Parents appreciate all that PALS does for their kids, she said, telling her how grateful they are that their kids are not missing out on experiences, that they look forward to school, and that they have friends.
Last year, the PALS members and Hamrick’s students went to Special Olympics together. Hamrick had T-shirts made, and they all wore the same one. She said the parents of her students with autism were thrilled to have a photo in which it was hard to pick out their children.
“The PALS group has become our miracle and the light of my son’s school days for two years now,” said Anthony D’Erasmo. “They are young, inspiring individuals who dedicate their time to our exceptional children. As parents they provide us hope. My son looks forward to having fun every day – and forging lasting friendships. We absolutely love them for all they do, and the smiles they pass along! Thanks to Jacquelyn and all our PALS for all they do. We are so thankful he is in a school that has created such an exceptional program.”
“Ideally, every school would have a program like this,” Jacquelyn said. She said it takes supportive teachers, administrators, and parents for a program to succeed.
Hamrick believes that PALS succeeds because the students were given a chance. “We opened the door and said hey, if you want to come, come,” she said. “Every school is probably full of these kids and they just need an opportunity.”
Sola Coffee Cafe, Sawmill Tap Room, Chick-Fil-A, Moe’s, Starbucks, and Red, Hot, & Blue donated refreshments for the Halloween party. DJ Marcus Ward also donated his services.Tags: autism, autism education, autism nc, autism school, Autism spectrum, Autism Spectrum Disorder, peer programs, special education