During a presentation on special-education students at Birch Lake Elementary School, one little second- or third-grade girl approached presenter and special education advocate Leslie Sieleni with a question.
“She asked me if she could catch my son’s disability by touching him,” Sieleni recalls of the conversation a few years ago that mentioned her son, Sean, who has Down syndrome. “At that point I knew that we needed this type of program,” she says. “There was a lot of misconception and not a lot of education. People have a fear of working with people with disabilities just because of the fear of the unknown. Our program is trying to take away that fear.”
That program is the Peer and Leadership Society (P.A.L.S.), an out-of-school, student-run monthly game-day that includes general students (peer leaders) and
special education students (peer participants) who are in grades five through 10. The goal is to enhance acceptance and improve inclusion of individuals with intellectual disabilities, Sieleni says.
The game-days are every third Sunday afternoon at the White Bear Area YMCA and can include dancing, playing board games, listening to music, etc. In July, P.A.L.S. celebrated its one-year anniversary with a swimming soiree. “It was harder than heck to get them out of the pool,” Sieleni says with a laugh. “They had a great time, and it’s a really good group of kids.”
Sean Sieleni is now an eighth-grader at Central Middle School and Leslie has seen how other students positively responded to his needs in school. “The reason I had this program outside of school is they are getting the attention they need in school,” she says. “The kids are very accepting of them in school, but outside of school, they are not getting phone calls from friends to get invited to parties. They are not going to school events with a group of people.”
Maddy Kephart, a peer leader and one of the 20-plus students involved in P.A.L.S., says she has met many new friends through the program and has worked to recruit others. “I hope they see how easy it is to make friends and be accepting of other people,” says Kephart, a 15-year-old sophomore at White Bear Lake Area High School-South Campus.
“We have some great leaders in our P.A.L.S. program and I think they are great advocates for our kids, too,” Leslie Sieleni says. “When they are out in the community, they say good things. If they hear someone say the ‘R’ word, they always speak up for them.”
“When people use the ‘R’ word, they don’t realize it could be hurtful or could have a negative affect on someone,” Kephart says. “We correct them and tell them it’s inappropriate.” The peer leaders will then suggest words that don’t negatively impact the students with special needs.
The group of leaders must show they can handle the responsibility. They must be willing to make a six-month commitment and be volunteering for the right reasons, Sieleni says. They must go though some training on peer participants’ sensory issues or dealing with possible conflict. This training and commitment is important because these students are alone together in the YMCA’s teen center without parental supervision, meaning they must mesh on their own.
In the past, the teen center had a problem with bullying, but P.A.L.S. has worked to change that. “The kids with special needs are free to be themselves and ask questions and not have to worry about others and their perceptions,” says Kate Whitby youth development director at the YMCA. “The kids that come in there want to be there.”
P.A.L.S.’ reach has extended beyond the Y, with one game-day consisting of making 25 fleece blankets to be delivered and donated to Cerenity Care Center in White Bear Lake. “It was priceless,” Sieleni says. “The individuals there were so thankful for those blankets and a lot of them said it was the best present ever. They paid it forward.”
To get involved with P.A.L.S., contact Leslie Sieleni at 612.747.0840.