When Wilde Lake High School senior Alexandra Bair agreed to be a peer assistant for a disabled ninth-grader, she didn't expect the experience to change her life.
"I've learned about someone different, with Down syndrome," Alexandra said of her work with Julia Schnorf. "I've normally been a pretty shy person ... but working with her I soon found out that there are just some things I had to do. She couldn't speak up for herself ... basically she just made me a braver person."
Alexandra, 18, is a winner of the 2003 Students Helping Students award, which recognizes youths who assist their disabled classmates. On May 13, she and two other students were honored by The Arc of Howard County, which sponsors the award. The group is a support organization for children and adults with developmental disabilities.
Students who win the accolade are more than classroom helpers. They befriend their disabled peers - assisting them is an extension of that relationship.
"One important element of successfully including students with disabilities is the relationship that's developed between the typical child and the child with special needs," said Carol Beatty, The Arc's executive director. "If the kids aren't accepting, aren't developing relationships, then part of the whole inclusion process is not working."
That is why, 12 years ago, the group added to its annual slate of awards Students Helping Students and an honor for school inclusion, which was won by Murray Hill Middle School this year.
Schools are asked for nominations each spring. Nomination letters from teachers and parents are reviewed by The Arc's Education and Youth Committee, which recommends winners to the group's executive board. "The element of friendship that's developing between the student with disabilities and the student without" is a key factor, said Jackie Ring, deputy executive director for The Arc.
Karen Angeline nominated elementary-level winners Katherine Mackey, 8, and Erica Hatcher, 9. Both girls work with Angeline's daughter, Fiona Shea, 9, who has Down syndrome. All three girls are in third grade at Swansfield Elementary.
"I am really proud of the leadership that these girls show," Angeline said. "It started out as classroom helping, but then it turned into real friendship.
"What's special about the Swansfield way of doing things is that they really facilitate the kids working together. The teachers actually gave the girls in the class jobs to do so that they got to know Fiona."
Katherine, Erica and Fiona spend recess together, call each other on the phone and have sleepovers. At the awards ceremony, Fiona clasped the hands of her friends and then joined the girls as they accepted their award certificates. About 100 people attended the meeting at Ellicott City Senior Center.
"It felt really good to win because it felt like I was doing something right for Fiona and doing something good for the school," Erica said.
Alexandra also said she appreciated being recognized for her work with Julia. Because she is not involved in sports or school activities that traditionally receive attention, winning the Students Helping Students award "makes me feel unique," she said.
Alexandra is a liaison between Julia and her teachers in classes such as physical education and art. However, in reading class, where Julia needs one-on-one assistance, Alexandra must act as her instructor. "I've helped her a lot with reading, handwriting. She has to learn things very slowly, simply," Alexandra said.
One of the things that she enjoys about working with Julia is that "we joke around. She knows how to joke. She's a funny kid. I think it's good that you can laugh with someone, that we can relate to each other."
Angeline said that forming friendships is an important aspect of the award. "It's about acknowledging what independent thinkers these girls are. They follow their hearts."
"It goes beyond just helping their friend in school," Beatty said. "They're doing other things to help create a real quality of life, and that's going to help these kids carry on when they're adults."
Information: www.arc howard.org.