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Friends spell it out with personalized books

Forest Hills — Teacher Margaret LePard’s kindergartners gathered around her on the floor and thought about classmate Riley Seeburger. 

Their task was to finish this sentence: I like being your friend because…

“He gives me hugs,” said one girl with a raised hand.

“He likes to dance,” said one boy.

From someone in the back: “He can be very silly.”

Reid Menzel summed it up: “There’s so many options.”

Like several other classrooms at Orchard View Elementary, these students were working on friendship books for their classmates with autism who join them for part of every school day.

Dozens throughout the building wore T-shirts donated by Waste Management that commemorated the district’s LINKS program, which pairs general education students with those who may need extra help in the classroom, cafeteria and on the playground.

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Strong Links Endure

The Orchard View LINKS program has 135 students across four classrooms signed on to help, so the 28 students who need a little extra can have two, three or more LINKS friends. Their relationships often span years and extend well beyond the school day, said school social worker Sharon Rusche. 

In the cafeteria, fourth-grader Cameron DeSander munched on red pepper slices and reflected on his friendship with classmate Trisha Chandana, with whom he has been paired since first grade.

“I told her that she’s unique, and she should never change,” Cameron said of what he wrote in the friendship book he helped make for her.

As for what he has learned from Trisha: “That autism is part of her personality,” he said, “and that you have to sometimes be patient with people who have autism.”

Second-graders, from left, Sienna Heslinga, Aanvi Veerouthu, Ben Weiss and Emery Mann are pictured with social worker Sharon Rusche

Students As Teachers

Rusche added that LINKS is a great example of “kids taking on the role of being the teachers of social skills. Who best can model those? I see myself as a facilitator, but the kids are the ones modeling opportunities for others to rise. Kids know, and they show each other.”

This was the second year Orchard View students made the friendship books, after a hiatus during pandemic-related building closures. 

“The first time we had a really lovely response from families about just how much they valued what other kids were saying about their child,” Rushce said.

And those with unique challenges have much to teach their peers as well.

“Something that we have come to realize over the years is that (general education) students get just as much if not more,” Rusche said. “They find confidence in themselves, they model the expectations for kindness and friendship and feel pride in that. And the true friendships that come out of this is really neat to see.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Kent ISD, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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