Claire O’Rourke

Features Editor

Hammond has long been providing opportunities for its students with special needs, but for the 2018-2019 school year, educators and students have worked together to expand the opportunities that are offered.

This school year has seen the return of the well-loved Best Buddies program, along with additions of brand new opportunities for students with special needs like the Book Buddies program and the ALS Coffee Delivery Service.

Best Buddies, a club where students in special education programs can meet with fellow Hammond students and participate in fun thematic activities, started a new chapter this year that proved to be the club’s revival. After a few years of the club’s absence, Senior Katie Rees saw a chance for the club to come back, and quickly sprung into action.

“I saw a huge need for it. There are a ton of incredible students with special needs at Hammond, and a ton of people I know are very interested in being friends, so I think what we needed was a space where we could all be together and just have fun and make friendships, so I wanted to be a part of that—to initiate that,” Rees shared.

The club’s sponsor, Ms. Shah, told the story of Rees’ role in the club’s revival, recounting that “At the end of last year, Katie Rees went to an admin and asked if we could start a chapter, and then she came to me and asked me if I would help her start it. I was all for it because I had actually been thinking about starting it because there are opportunities for our students with special needs to participate in other activities, but nothing that’s for them specifically at Hammond.”

Rees first learned of Best Buddies through the “Spread the Word to End the Word” mural outside of Room 205, but was prompted to start the chapter up when she met Senior Deja Reece. On the topic of Deja, Rees said, “Deja and her mom are both very active in the Maryland Best Buddies community, but they have to go all the way to Anne Arundel County for meetings because there isn’t one at Hammond.” After learning this, Rees decided that there needed to be a chapter closer to home.

Best Buddies has produced successful friendships across the globe, and has chapters designed for middle school, high school, college, and adults. Rees believes that, “a program like Best Buddies is so needed at Hammond.” She wants to see the impact that Hammond students can have on the lives of their classmates with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Rees would like everyone to know that, “[Best Buddies] makes a huge difference, and parents and families of students with IDD are so happy to see it being started again.”

The ultimate goal of the club, as Ms. Shah explains, is for students to focus on social skills and learning how to interact with their peers, as well as to provide Hammond’s students with disabilities a real-life experience with their classmates who are there specifically to support them. She emphasizes: “One of the goals is definitely to work on their social skills and prepare them for the work environment.”

At their October 2018 meeting, Best Buddies celebrated Halloween by throwing a huge Halloween-themed party packed with fun followed by a festive scavenger hunt. The Buddies and their pairs also participated in a fall tree-painting activity together at the party.

Senior Ramel Washington, who is the peer-buddy of fellow senior Jamal Owens, recalls the joys of the scavenger hunt with his buddy. “My buddy was so into it, and so happy to try and find the next pumpkin at ‘x’ location, and he actually overran one spot. He went into a classroom and it was right there, and he was looking through the classroom like crazy. It was just really fun to see.”

For Washington, he hopes to gain a long-term friendship with Owens, “He’s a real good guy,” Washington says.

Best Buddies has already started to see development in the social and work skills of the buddies. “I’ve actually seen a really big change in a lot of buddies being [more] open with people and communicating much more,” says Rees. “Those social skills that they’re learning [through Best Buddies are] how to interact with [their] peers because a lot of times they don’t have that opportunity,” Mrs. Shah adds.

In addition to the return of Best Buddies, Hammond has also introduced a new program for students in Special Ed in the form of Book Buddies. These students take to the halls of Hammond with the Media Specialists, along with a portable book cart, venturing to the teacher’s classrooms who have signed up to participate in the program.

The program came about when Ms. Henry contacted Ms. Du Puis and asked if there was a job she could give the ALS students. Ms. Du Puis recounts “a couple of years ago, [having] an idea that I really wanted to go into classrooms to provide kind of a ‘media center experience’ for students to check out books, so when [Ms. Henry] came to me and asked: that’s when I suggested that [they] could help with doing ‘Book Buddies.’ That’s what we could call it: Book Buddies instead of ‘Best Buddies.’ They could meet with teachers of different students and check out books for them.”

Book Buddies provides the ALS students with the opportunities to use the scanner, hand out books to the students, and provide the bookmark that tells the student checking out a book when to bring it back. They also stamp the bookmark, then verbally tell the students what date the book is due, so it is a lot of friendly interaction and encouragement.

“I think the students in the classroom that come out to meet with the Book Buddies know that not only are they out there to check out a book to read for enjoyment, but they’re also getting that extra social interaction with the ALS students, and I think it’s really nice to see,” says Ms. Du Puis. “It just goes to support our motto ‘where people are important.’”

The program hopes in the future to expand their resources to two book carts, and start visiting classrooms more than just fifth or sixth period. The goal, Ms. Du Puis says, is to get the cart to as many classrooms and teachers as possible.

Hammond also offers the ALS program, and while the main goal of that class is not building upon social skills, the program focuses on developing work skills for later in life. The class is during the school day for students who are working towards a graduation certificate for when they leave Hammond.

The ALS students also offer a coffee and delivery service to staff members once a month. This is the second year the ALS program is offering this service. To participate, staff members need to fill out an order form sent to them by email. They then place their order and pay beforehand, and the delivery is about a week later.

The service started up when Ms. Shah and Ms. Henry recognized a need for their students to have real life job experience and to practice their social skills and teamwork.

Ms. Shah detailed the work experiences for the students: “Working with each other is really good because they each have designated tasks. It may sound like simple tasks for most people, but for them it’s big things. [They’re learning] how to staple the thank-you note onto the bag, how to read an order form and know that it says the person wants a donut, not a muffin, and then put that donut in the bag while not forgetting the napkin. They’re learning how to pour coffee, so there’s just a lot of tasks to do around the building.”

As for their experiences with social skills, “Students have to interact with teachers they wouldn’t normally see on a regular basis nor students they regularly see. They [also] have to communicate and learn if the next person’s ready or not. Patiently waiting and learning how to be in charge: that’s the social skills piece,” Ms. Shah explains.

Even before the day of the delivery service, the ALS students are already gaining experience working and using technology. Mrs. Shah gives them a Google form, and together the program decides what food and drink options will be offered. They also decorate the bags the food items will be delivered in. Students then enter the orders into a spreadsheet.

“That’s all done in advance, but the day of, they’re reading the order forms, they’re putting the correct food items in the bag, they’re pouring the correct beverage. They do a quality control check: [They have] to knock on the door, not barge in.”

Both Ms. Henry and Ms. Shah share hope that this opportunity will give these students strong work and social skills and prepare them for work later in life.