Shaping perspectives: Mentors bond with special needs students

A peer mentor program at Seymour High School isn’t just helping special needs students, it’s also changing the lives of the teen volunteers involved.

Last year, when special education life skills teacher Jill Halterman began working at the school, there was a group of nine student mentors who spent time in Room 111.

“I tried to plant some seeds with them and their friends to get more of them to come into the room and spend some time with us because those nine loved it,” Halterman said.

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Now, there are 33 students who give up their study halls to play games, sing songs, read, dance and become friends with their fellow classmates who have moderate to severe disabilities.

“This is where they want to be,” Halterman said of the mentors.

Some of the 12 special needs students are in wheelchairs, and many do not have the ability to talk, but that doesn’t prevent the mentors from forming positive relationships with them and making them feel more accepted at the school.

For many, it can be intimidating to work so closely with students with special needs, and Halterman said it’s normal for mentors to be hesitant or even scared. But it doesn’t take long for that to change, Halterman said, and mentors soon begin stopping by on their own during passing periods or after lunch to see their friends.

“They learn about acceptance of all people, not just people with disabilities, but all people, no matter their difference or their medical need,” she said. “I think they learn about their own confidence, their own self-worth, their purpose.”

What surprises Halterman the most about the success of the peer mentor program is the varied interests and backgrounds of those students who want to do it.

From a skateboarder to an Indiana University Wells Scholar to a choir girl to a wrestler, each mentor brings unique qualities to the special education classroom, and collectively, they are able to enrich lives of students with special needs, she said.

In return for their time commitment, positive attitudes and willingness to do something for others, peer mentors receive an elective credit for the year, but that’s not why they do it, Halterman said.

Junior Aubrie Bowman is a cheerleader at the high school, and her locker just happens to be next to Room 111.

“I had seen people coming in and out of the room, and they all looked like they were having a good time and really enjoyed what they were doing,” Bowman said. “So I went to my counselor and arranged my schedule so I could be a peer mentor.”

Bowman now knows she wants to pursue a career in special education because of her experiences.

“I wanted to do it because I was interested in going into the field of special education,” she said. “I thought not only would it give me great hands-on experience, but many great friendships along the way.”

It’s those friendships with students that have made being a peer mentor worth it, she said.

“The friendships have made my experience in there something very rewarding and something I will truly never forget,” Bowman said.

During basketball homecoming this year, Bowman even worked to make it possible for King to be a cheerleader and go out on the court to cheer during a student versus faculty game.

Although mentors work with special needs students on academic lessons, time also is spent doing sensory activities and just having fun together as friends.

“They definitely learn a lot from us, but we also learn a lot from them,” Bowman said. “I think the students benefit from us being in there in many different ways. Everyone walks into the room being very open-minded, and I think the kids really benefit from that because they feel comfortable and build a great amount of trust in us.”

Senior Kyle Kisamore said being a special education peer mentor has made him a better person and given him a sense of purpose.

He was introduced to the class by Halterman.

“She showed me what they do and how they help the special needs students,” Kisamore said. “Me becoming a peer mentor was something I wanted to do because I love to help people one-on-one.”

But the experience has helped him in ways he never imagined it would.

“A lot of people do not realize what they have in life and that they are very lucky to be who they are,” he said.

Kisamore said he teaches students how to match colors and shapes, how to talk and how to express their feelings or what they want.

“I’m sure me being there is great for them because of the attention they get,” he said. “It makes me feel bad when people are scared of being around them.”

That’s why he wants to make them feel special and included, he said.

Sophomore Kaelen Eglen has developed a close relationship with King and spends time with her outside of school, too.

“She’s one of my best friends,” Eglen said. “I have so much fun with her.”

For Eglen, working with special needs students her age gives her a new perspective.

“Your glass doesn’t have to be half empty,” she said. “It can be half full.”

The proof of the mentors’ impact is evident in the smiles and excitement of the students and how they just want to be around them, whether it’s having a book read to them, playing bingo, dancing to a Taylor Swift song or going outside to write and draw on the sidewalks with sidewalk chalk.

“My favorite thing about working with them is even if I am having a bad day, the second I step foot into that room, my day is completely changed,” Bowman said. “They bring so much joy and happiness into my life, and I know I can always count on the kids in that room to brighten my day. Some of my best friends are students in that room.”