When 13-year-old Bethany Winer was deciding how to spend her summer, she talked to her older brother. For the past few years Matt Winer, 15, has been working with special education students at Cedar Lane summer school.
"I didn't know if I was quite sure I wanted to [volunteer], but when Matt did it and he was happy" she decided to try it, said Bethany, an Ellicott City resident. "I wanted to make a difference."
Bethany is one of 62 teen volunteers working at Cedar Lane this summer.
Cedar Lane School is Howard County's center for students with intense special education needs. About 250 of the children who attend special education programs through the year participate in the summer program from June 26 through Aug. 1. Called the "Consolidated Program," the summer school is held at Cedar Lane and Harper's Choice Middle School.
"The children are coming here in the summer for various reasons," said Paul Owens, principal of the summer program and special education team leader at Hollifield Station Elementary. "If they didn't come, there might be skills or learning that they might lose over the summer, maybe something as simple as the routine of school."
The decision to send a child to the free program is made by each child's parents and the teachers who worked with them during the school year.
"It's hard to find help in the summertime," Owens said. "A lot of our children really need a lot of one-on-one intervention, so the help [from volunteers] is great."
Volunteers must be at least 13 years old and can work one to six weeks.
"Some are doing it to fulfill their service hours requirement to graduate from high school. Most of them do it because they just enjoy working with children," said Sue Dvoskin, who has been the program's volunteer coordinator for five years.
Help reaching goals
Others, like Bethany, hope to be special education teachers and see the program as a means of achieving that goal. "Everything about it is everything I hoped it to be," Bethany said.
Before the summer program begins, volunteers go through a day of training. They learn classroom rules, safety and how to work with teachers. They also talk about such things as calling ahead if they are ill and can't make it to work.
Dvoskin said that each of the 36 classrooms has a teacher and two instructional assistants and usually at least one volunteer.
When 30 school buses arrive at 8:30 each morning, the teen volunteers help get students who use wheelchairs into the school. Once in the classroom, Dvoskin said, the volunteers "are there to help the teachers with the different things they do ... art projects; some of the students are working on academics; the children go to music class once a week. They go into the gym and they do activities with them there."
"I would hope that the volunteers would get a perspective on people with disabilities in general, understand that they are people first and they're a part of this world," Owens said.
"Sometimes it's really hard to even spend time with the kids - it's a little scary at first, a little intimidating," said Bethany's brother, Matt, as he read to a student and praised her for picking up her head to see the pictures. "But the kids are all just the sweetest kids. Sometimes it can feel like you're not getting anywhere ... but everything I do with them counts."
Columbia resident Andrea Griffia, 17, was helping students make fruit salad. A volunteer for four years, Andrea is now an instructional assistant who plans to minor in special education at James Madison University in the fall.
"It was a blast. I love watching the kids react to the different activities we do. Even the littlest things are amazing ... coming back every year and having kids recognize me," Andrea said.
"When you see all the negative things about teen-agers in the papers," Dvoskin said, "it's nice to see a great group of kids like this."
To volunteer: Sue Dvoskin, 410-313-6977.