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Friendships form through positive links

Program receives Special Olympics recognition

Byron Center — “Are you ready for this?” Lily asked her friend Gavin as he approached the bowling ball ramp.

Together, they lifted the bowling ball onto the ramp, a modified method of bowling which helps line up the path of the ball with the pins, and Gavin pushed the ball down. Then, the two seventh-graders watched it roll down the lane and crash into the pins.

“Yay! Gavin, you did it!” Lily exclaimed and applause from his peers followed Gavin back to his seat.

In lane 29, Lily and fellow seventh-grader Alena joined their “LINKS,” Gavin and Hector, on their monthly bowling field trip with other middle and elementary students. They are part of West Middle School’s peer-to-peer LINKS program

Carrie VanDeRoer, speech-language pathologist and West Middle School’s LINKS coordinator, explained how their program organizes a monthly bowling trip for students, but this was the first time their peers came along. LINKS, a long-established program in the district, is in its first year at West Middle.

“It’s a great learning opportunity for our students to have meaningful shared experiences,” VanDeRoer said. “It’s not just about the activity, but building meaningful connections and memories that we talk about long after the bus brings them back to school. That’s how friendships form.”

West Middle, Nickels Intermediate, Marshall Elementary and Byron Center High School were recently named Unified Champion Schools through the  Special Olympics for their support of LINKS. 

Champion Schools work with Special Olympics to provide inclusive opportunities for students with and without disabilities, with a focus on engaging in sports and youth leadership. Special Olympics provides funding for schools to organize events and field trips that include physical activities, so cost is not a barrier. 

A ‘Win-Win-Win’ Partnership 

Stephene Diepstra, Nickels Intermediate School’s social worker and program founder, explained how field trips with physical activity involved have “historically been a segregated activity.”

“This partnership is a big step in the right direction for us and what field trips can be like when we look through an inclusive lens,” Diepstra said. “We’re being intentional with engaging in recreational activities, bowling and gymnastics each month for students of all abilities and it’s a win-win-win.”

‘It’s not just about the activity, but building meaningful connections and memories that we talk about long after the bus brings them back to school.’

– Carrie VanDeRoer, LINKS coordinator

Before she got to middle school, Lily knew about LINKS. She was one of over 80 students who signed up when the program launched at West Middle School last fall. 

“We get to hang out with our friends from other classes,” she said. “Some students eat lunch with their LINKS or have gym class together. We help them have a positive learning experience, not just doing things for them.” 

In her second year of the program, eighth-grader Sofia said her favorite part of LINKS is everyone hanging out together.  

Alena said she enjoys interacting with her peers, learning more about them and becoming friends. “Joining LINKS was the best decision I’ve ever made,” she said. 

The LINKS team across the district plans to continue inclusive field trips, supported by Special Olympics, so students can learn how to interact with others and navigate public spaces alongside their peers.  

“When we just had staff on these trips, half of our kids were sitting and not bowling,” VanDeRoer said. “When we invite their peers, they jump right in and it’s really sweet to see that interaction.” 

Long-term, the goal of the partnership is to have a unified sports team in all buildings.

“The Special Olympics has been a great partner for us and a great model of a community partnership,” Diepstra said. “Our shared focus on inclusive sporting events paints a picture for what we hope the world will be like for all our students.”

A long-established program in the district, the LINKS program is in its first year at West Middle
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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”

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