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Workshop offers students with special needs a day of fun and learning


Aliyah Monterusso jumped up and down in excitement as she and her Sparta High School classmates put the finishing touches on a bench they were building at the Building Blocks for Healthy Relationships conference.

“It is perfect! We’re gonna use it in our school!” she exclaimed, as volunteers from Wedgwood Christian Services helped them drill the final screws in the boards and tipped up the bench for Aliyah and her classmates to sit on.

Ally Knoor, left, and Stellita Kuyper from the Forest Hills Transition program work out in the yoga and dance class

The Bench Buddy workshop was one of nine activities staged recently for nearly 300 students with special needs from nine high schools in Kent, Ionia and Montcalm counties. The daylong event was held at the Prince Conference Center on Calvin College’s campus in Grand Rapids.

As the buses arrived, students aged 14 to 26 were assigned to group activities that included bus-riding lessons, dance, yoga, snack preparation, personal hygiene and a “consent and boundaries” exercise.

In the gathering room, yoga instructor Pam Means led the groups through a variety of dance moves, yoga poses, stretching exercises and kickboxing moves that left the participants giggling and breathless.

In the “Mix, Mingle and Munch” session, two chefs showed participants how  to mix common pantry items into tasty treats.

Alex Courtright stretches a garland as he follows the leader’s moves in dance and yoga class

The Bigger Picture

The conference was the culmination of a three-year Sexual Risk Avoidance grant administered by Cheryl Blair of Kent ISD. The grant, from the Family & Youth Services Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, was aimed at offering at-risk youth positive activities aimed at building healthy relationships with their friends and family members, Blair said.

Jill Capozzoli, a teacher at Forest Hills Northern High School, said her students had been looking forward to the conference. “I think they enjoy getting out and being with their friends,” she said.

The conference also included serious topics. Sara Rumbarger, of the YWCA’s WEAVE (Working to End Assault and Violence for Everyone) program, led the students in exercises aimed at teaching them when to say “yes” and when to say “no” to physical and intimate contact.

Devin Cariano of Forest Hills enjoys a stretching activity in the yoga and dance class

“We know they are at a higher risk,” said Rumbarger. “We’re trying to teach them how to get help.”

She led the groups through role-playing exercises in which they discussed when kissing and hugging were permissible and when they were not. According to WEAVE’s statistics, 83 percent of women with a developmental or intellectual disability will be sexually victimized. And, just 3 percent of their abuser are strangers.

The workshop was the culmination of a three-year grant to provide sexuality education and positive youth activity options for special education students in self-contained secondary classrooms, Blair said.

More than 550 students from 19 school districts and 57 classrooms participated in the program, Blair said. Students have 10 lessons in sexuality education in each of the grant’s three years.

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James Harger
James Harger
James Harger left School News Network in January of 2020. James previously reported on West Michigan's economy, courts and politics for The Grand Rapids Press and Mlive.com for more than 37 years. He also is employed as Servanthood Leader at Immanuel Lutheran Church in downtown Grand Rapids. A graduate of Central Michigan University, he also has worked for publications in Holland, Mount Pleasant and Lansing. He is married to Lisa and has one daughter, who lives in Ann Arbor.

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