Arundel's 'Buddy' program fosters student bonds


October 21, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Anne Arundel Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Each time Timothy Friday gets a flashcard subtraction problem right, Alanna Porter insists they slap five, a gesture more familiar to the playground but no less appreciated during a fourth-grade math lesson.

Timothy is no ordinary student. For one thing, he has the good fashion sense to wear a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt with his blue jeans. For another, he is almost deaf, unable to understand others unless they communicate through a microphone and amplifier or use sign language.

The youngster regards Alanna, a sixth-grader, as someone special, too. A fellow pupil at Shipley's Choice Elementary School, she spends at least one period a week teaching her friend Timothy and -- much to her surprise -- learning a few things from him as well.

"I was a little bit nervous at first, but now I know it's fun," said Alanna, whose weekly interaction with Timothy has taught her an impressive sign-language vocabulary. "Once you get to know these people, you realize they're not that different. With Timothy the only difference between us is that once in a while you have to sign."

Timothy and Alanna are part of the elementary school's popular "Buddy-Buddy" program, where disabled children are teamed with able-bodied buddies for camaraderie and tutoring.

Three years ago many of these children would have been segregated in a school exclusively for special education students.

Now they are part of the mainstream. And, according to Buddy-Buddy's proponents, they are better integrated and more fully accepted by their able-bodied classmates than at any other school See BUDDY, 5A, Col. 1BUDDY, from 1Ain the county and perhaps within the state.

When the autistic and developmentally delayed students first came to Shipley's Choice, "their self-esteem was low," said Lynne W. Friend, a speech therapist and the school's Buddy-Buddy coordinator. "They carried themselves like they had poor self-esteem.

"Today, they carry themselves like any other students," she said. "They walk with their heads held high and in a straight line. Something has happened with this program that has made these kids stand up."

Autism, a mental disorder of children that is often characterized by daydreaming and a withdrawal from reality, has not prevented 10-year-old Katie Simmons from striking up a lunchroom friendship with fellow fourth-grader Jamie Berg.

Katie is autistic; Jamie is not. But at lunchtime each day, they are inseparable and have been for the two years they have been buddies.

"I like helping her out," said Jamie, who is careful to look directly at Katie and correct her when she misses a point. "It's just fun to be with her."

Equally close are Denis Brokke, who was born deaf, and Gregory Janis, who is developmentally delayed. Denis, who graduated from Shipley's Choice and is a seventh-grader at Severna Park Middle School, became such a pal with 8-year-old Gregory last spring that he visited the youngster three times at home when Gregory had chickenpox.

"We thought that was so wonderful. It meant the world to his dad and I," said Debbie Janis, Gregory's mother. Gregory "has become more social and learned a lot of 'kid' things . . . and he's learned that there's a place in society for every one of us."

Brenda Brokke, Denis' mother, is equally pleased. "Denis feels important and needed. He was worried if he ever got sick one day, 'Who would look after Greg?' I think all the parents at Shipley's Choice have found out this program is good for their children."

The Buddy-Buddy program was launched after Shipley's Choice was chosen as one of three elementary schools to serve as pilot projects when the county began to integrate special education students into the mainstream in 1989.

Under the program, able-bodied students sign up to serve as buddies at lunch or recess or as peer tutors during selected classes. The responsibility is taken seriously: the students must sign a contract that spells out what is expected of a buddy.

In the first year of the program, 67 of the school's 500 students signed up. Last year, 132 volunteered, and this year there are 175 buddies for the 31 special education students. That demand has forced organizers to rotate buddy positions so more students can participate.

Michael Ventrudo, 11, said that he signed up because he wanted "to help others" and because he thought it would be a "good feeling" to teach someone with a disability. He said that his experience with hearing-impaired students has made him a "more agreeable person."

"I was surprised by them," Michael confessed. "I didn't think they'd be this smart."

Fellow tutor Katie Young, 10, was equally impressed. "You think English class is hard, and then you come here and you see what they have to learn -- a whole other language," she said.

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