Special needs students find camaraderie through club

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Hart District schools have experienced changes in the way students with disabilities and general education teens interact, partly due to the introduction of the club, Circle of Friends (COF).

“At the end of the day, everyone is here for one reason and it’s to make inclusion a priority,” said Jennifer McCool, a club co-adviser for COF and special education teacher at Golden Valley High School.

COF pairs students with disabilities with general education teens and the group will meet during lunch to hang out or even spend time with one another outside of school. Three high schools in the Hart District have the club on campus, as well as four junior high schools.

Golden Valley High School started their club up four years ago and has since flourished to two hundred teens involved in the school’s program, with 150 of the students in general education courses.

Elijah Suggs, in flannel shirt, and his group of friends spend a lunch period together at Golden Valley High School on Feb. 2. Samie Gebers/ Signal

Emiley Grose has been involved with COF since her freshman year and, along with three other general education students, spends time with her pal Elijah Suggs every week.

“If there are issues with personal life we can talk it through and we help Eli out as much as we can,” Grose said. “That is what we’re here for, we’re here for him.”

Suggs was diagnosed with autism and has since opened up after becoming involved with the club.

“When he first came he was very, very shy,” said Jaime Foderaro, the COF club advisor and GV special education teacher. “He’s still kind of shy, but he’s definitely come out of his comfort zone and really looks forward to being at school itself.”

From left to right, Marianna Lopez, 17, and Liana Trujillo, 18, build with Jenga blocks at Golden Valley High School on Feb. 2. Samie Gebers/ Signal

“It is something that I look forward to,” Suggs said.

“These guys mean a lot to me. There was something about this group that has helped us become really good friends with each other.”

Raymond Ibrahim, another friend who is a part of Suggs’s circle, noticed that he has changed for the better as well.

“Yea, we might help Elijah,” Ibrahim said. “But Elijah helps us realize that it’s okay to make new friends, be social and help encourage others.”

“I think it does as much for the general education population as it does for the special needs population,” McCool said.

Both Foderaro and McCool have been involved with the club for four years at Golden Valley High School and have noticed a change in the way their students interact with others at the school.

“We’ve definitely seen climate change on our campus for the better,” Foderaro said.

“Students with disabilities are being accepted more out on the campus. Our students without disabilities are watching out for those with disabilities.”

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