High school senior Kamryn Jansen helped sophomore Chris Lippenga to screen print a previously tie-dyed T-shirt. On the front they printed “LINKS” and on the back, a quote from Helen Keller: “Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.”
Kamryn and Chris have become great friends this year. Kamryn helps Chris, who is autistic, in English class; together they watch YouTube videos — one of Chris’ favorite things to do — and they have learned the tricky steps of the 1920s dance, the Charleston.
They took a break from their art project recently to demonstrate the fancy footwork they learned via YouTube.
Sixty students, 30 general education and 30 special education, pair up through the school’s LINKS program, which began this fall as a way for students to get to know and learn from each other. As one-to-one friends, theycall each other LINKS.
In teacher Jeremy Zeiler’s moderately cognitively impaired class, the LINKS group focuses on basic living and work such as laundry and cooking, and social skills. They also pair up in general education classes like English and biology.
“She helps me a lot in class,” Chris said.
“I’ve learned so much,” said Kamryn. “I’ve learned there are so many different people in the world… He’s a friend of mine. I’ve learned a lot from being around him.”
Getting to Know Each Other
LINKS students also go on outings together. They’ve gone bowling, to restaurants, Christmas shopping at RiverTown Crossings mall in Grandville, and attended a special-needs basketball game. They plan to wear their new shirts this month at a West Michigan Whitecaps game.
Senior Jacobi Mann, a special education student, said it’s just a lot of fun getting to know others. “I like it a lot, spending time with friends and meeting new people,” he said.
While working with Jacobi on his T-shirt, senior Allison Vincent said everyone benefits from LINKS. Special bonds are created.
“You get to know the kids, every single one of them,” she said. “When it started, I was thinking I’d just be helping them, but I ended up creating new friends and hanging out with them,” she said.
Allison said she admires the special education students’ positivity. “They are all really nice to each other; you never see any bullying. They don’t judge. It’s like brothers and sisters.”
Special education teachers Zeiler and Sarah Hammer started LINKS to introduce students with different needs and skill levels to one another. Some general education students are interested in careers working with people with special needs, they said.
As for special education students, “It’s really to help the kids feel like a part of the school,” Zeiler said.
Hammer, who has worked with autistic students for 13 years, has attended trainings on peer relationships. “Kids with autism really struggle with that, and they have found this is one of the best ways to get them out of their shell, get them to communicate more and socialize,” she said.
Got to Have Friends
LINKS also breaks down barriers, the teachers explained, by helping students learn they all have a lot in common, and they all need friends and understanding.
“All kids need different tools and different things to be successful, and our tools might just look a little different than what someone else’s look like,” Hammer said.
Senior Taylor Bateman, a general education student, said she has liked building a relationship with her LINK, Rhiannon Prins. It has led her to consider a profession in the special education field.
“Being involved with kids with special needs has taught me more about it and opened my eyes to how great these kids are,” Taylor said.
One special moment: “The other day my LINK told me she would like to stay in touch with me after I go off to college,” Taylor said.