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Bringing Woodland students together with kids from other local schools benefits everyone

Students working together through the LINK program

Bringing Woodland students together

Having fun!

Small moments: a touch, a smile, a shared glance. If these were physical objects, the floors at Woodland Developmental Center would be covered in them. They are, however, mostly invisible and always fleeting. Still…

Alex George is a 14-year-old freshman at Marysville High School. This summer, she volunteered at Woodland as part of the new LINK program that brings students like Alex to work with their peers at Woodland.

Her mother, Marissa George, recounted one of those small moments. Alex was working in room 101, sitting with a Woodland student who is nonverbal and uses a wheelchair. The Woodland student had been having a difficult morning and was fussing and fidgeting in her chair. Alex recounted to her mom what happened next.

“I tried to talk to her. She stopped and looked at me. I held out my hands, and she grabbed my two fingers. In that moment, I felt so special and loved,” Alex said. “It was the best feeling I had ever experienced. No one really noticed, but it meant a lot to me.”
Woodland social worker Lisa Koehn brought the LINK concept to Woodland. She had worked with the program at her previous job with Algonac schools. LINK is not an acronym. Rather, it is a descriptive term for a research-based, peer-to-peer support system developed in 1990 at Grand Valley State University for use with young people who have autism.

At Woodland, the program is not limited to students with any particular diagnosis. The idea was that young volunteers from around the county would spend time in Woodland classrooms. Sure, they would be helpers, and at Woodland, an extra pair of hands is always welcome. Mostly, though, these LINK volunteers were there to be friends.

“Our LINKs kids get to see someone who is abled differently,” said Tammy Brown, who teaches in room 113 for moderately cognitively impaired (MOCI) students ages 12 to 14. “They make friends, real friendships. Buddies. They like the same music and play the same games. They see that they’re just a kid -- and they only get to see that here.”
When Woodland put out the call for young student volunteers this spring for this new program, no one was sure about the response. Volunteers were in middle and high school. They would be at Woodland as much as three days a week for six weeks for no pay and they would have to provide their own transportation. The only compensation was a free lunch and a T-shirt. On top of that, each student volunteer had to write a short essay explaining why he or she wanted to work at Woodland, and also provide two letters of reference.

Koehn was excited when 37 kids followed through. The benefit to them was exposure to a specialized learning environment and training in working with young people with a range of abilities.
“It’s a huge commitment,” said teacher Katie Roelens from room 115 with MOCI students ages 9 to 12. “It’s a responsibility they have never had, and a life experience they can take away with them. It’s very impressive they’re taking their time to do this.”

Thirty-seven students signed up for LINK at the start of the summer. Thirty-seven were there at the end of the summer.
Jenna Harmon is a seventh-grader at Fort Gratiot Middle School. One day this summer, she was sharing smiles aplenty while playing balloon badminton in the universally accessible playground outside Woodland’s back door. The wind wasn’t making the balloon go where it was supposed to go, but no one seemed to mind.
She signed up to be a LINK volunteer simply because she thought it would be interesting. And fun. Her experience at Woodland has led her to think about working in special education as a career.

“It’s fun to be with kids who are the same age, but their personalities are all different,” Jenna said. "They’re regular kids,” she said matter-of-factly about her new friends at Woodland. “They just have their own way of being a regular kid.”
Roelens said the LINK students gradually came to understand their roles at Woodland. “We want them to be a friend, not a teacher’s aide. We didn’t want that,” Roelens said. "We’re creating the environment where they’re just friends, and if they offer help, it’s the way you’d help a friend.”

Emmy O’Neil, 14, whom attends Marine City Cardinal Mooney, understands the importance of that distinction.

“We’re not their teachers, we’re their friends. They’re not really that different than us. They like to do the same stuff,” Emmy said.
Shelley Wilcoxon’s daughter, Megan, 17, is a student at Yale High School and the Blue Water Middle College. Shelley said Megan came home one day with a drawing: “She said, ‘One of the kids drew this for me.’ You could see she was treating it like a parent getting their first drawing from school from their child.”
Victoria and Molly are Woodland students who say they have enjoyed having LINK volunteers around.
“They sit with us at lunch,” Victoria said. “We talk about things I like to do, like go to the movies. They are normal kids.”
Molly said, “I like to do things with the (LINK) kids like friends do. If someone needs help, they give support. They have a good time with us.”
LINK volunteers help students like Victoria and Molly at Woodland, but Molly acknowledged that maybe the LINK students are learning a few things, too.
Marissa George, the mother of LINK student Alex, said the Woodland students are provided an important dose of perspective to the LINK volunteers. They “get to know the Woodland students and see that they are individuals with lives and interests similar to them, and should not be defined by their disabilities or physical challenges.”
Molly perhaps summed it up best: “I teach them to be a better person.”
How you can help: Students volunteering for the summer LINK program receive no pay. However, they are given T-shirts and provided with a lunch. Contributions to help defray those costs are welcome. Checks can be made out to St. Clair County RESA. Indicate it is for the LINK program and mail to: St. Clair County RESA c/o Kim Day, 499 Range Road, PO Box 1500 Marysville, MI 48040.
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