PE Leaders, Best Buddies teach life lessons

By Ashley Grant

For the first couple weeks of school, Bernard – an autistic boy in my PE Leaders class known to all as “BJ” – refused to run. No one could even get him to walk fast. Everyday the class was full of voices yelling “Come on BJ, run, run,” but he continued walking slowly.

One day as BJ and I walked hand in hand into the dance studio I smiled and asked, “Wanna run, BJ? Come on! Wanna run?”

Still holding his hand, I started into a slow jog. He looked at me with the biggest smile on his face and started running next to me. It was the first time I felt like I was truly reaching BJ and making a difference in his experience at school.

Lane’s PE Leaders is a class where regular education students pair up with special needs students to help them develop social skills. An after-school club called Best Buddies is a related program with the same agenda.

Autism causes people like BJ to experience the world differently from the way most others do. They often have difficulty talking with other people and expressing themselves through words. Children with autism usually keep to themselves and can change emotions within a very short period of time.

“I remember one day me and another student in the class were in the gym with one of the kids named Jeremy,” said Ashley Homa, Div. 037. “He would not stop playing tag with us, while he laughed and ran around. But then when he finally got tired is when it was no more tag for Jeremy.”

Lane students who work with the autistic and other special needs students in the PE Leaders class admit that not all their interactions were initially positive. As time has passed, however, they have come to appreciate the connections they have made.

“When I was first exposed to the class I was sad because I wished I could understand them and what is going through their heads,” said Homa. “And most of them are my age or older, yet I feel like they are treated so much younger. But overall I think I am more proud than sad most of the time because everyday we try to teach them new games or ideas.”

“When I finally got the kids to interact with me, the feeling I got was indescribable,” said Samantha DeBondt, Div. 020. “I’m proud of myself for getting them up and comfortable, but seeing them accomplish new tasks is very exciting!”

“In PE Leaders I had a buddy named Steven and for about two weeks I would ask him questions about school, home, or his weekend,” said Natalie Gaddini, Div. 027. “He would always just nod or look away. But then one day when I asked him he finally answered with ‘watched TV,’ and when I asked him what he watched he said ‘cartoons.’ It made me feel really good to have him finally open up to me like that.”

The students have noticed other instances of how their special needs buddies have given back to them and even changed their perspectives on life.

“They have taught me a lot. They really taught me to appreciate my life… and the simple things we take for granted everyday. They find joy in the simplest things and it really inspires me to do the same,” said DeBondt.

“They have definitely made me more curious about life and how we all perceive things, they all have such amazing personalities, it was more then I expected,” said Homa, “I look at them as people, nothing else, and I have fun with them.”

“[They have taught me] to appreciate all that I have because some of these children struggle through a lot of issues that may never be a problem for me,” said Jocelyn Gil, Div. 031.

Students who have taken the PE Leaders class or participated in the best Buddies club encourage others to get involved.

“It is a beautiful experience that is very important to the autistic kids,” said Gil. “These children are very unique, and every moment I am able to spend with them seems to always be a fantastic time.”

“It is important for people to get involved with PE Leaders or Best Buddies because you’re giving each kid a new friend, someone new to have a good time with,” said DeBondt, “It also opens your eyes to a whole new level of helping the society you live in.”

Walking into my 7th period PE Leaders class, I am greeted with the happiest smiles I get all day. Sometimes BJ even runs up to say hello.