By Joan Hellyer, staff writer
Samantha Roseman (right), 9, a third-grader at Goodnoe Elementary School spends time with visiting Council Rock High School North sophomore Yasmin Barouki (left), 16, and freshman Jordan Galing, 15, during the BLAST (Big and Little Autism Support Team) program at the Newtown Township school Thursday, March 17, 2016.
Thursday is “the best day of the week” for Nate Whitney because he knows once his school day is over, he gets to spend time with his BLAST teammates.
“I feel excited,” said Nate, 8, a Goodnoe Elementary School third-grader.
The excitement grows each week as it gets closer to Thursday afternoon, Nate said, when he gets to play with Lego pieces, Jenga blocks and other games while talking with his teammates, Emily Panyard, a Council Rock High School North junior and Josee Li, a CR North freshman.
“Talking is the best way to get to know about people,” said Nate, who was decked out at last Thursday’s session on St. Patrick’s Day in a green T-shirt that read: “Who needs luck when you are this awesome?”
BLAST stands for Big and Little Autism Support Team. The pilot program is organized by the Council Rock School District and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Bucks County. It pairs Goodnoe students with autism with Council Rock high school students who volunteer to mentor them. Big Brothers Big Sisters uses grant money to fund the project, a spokeswoman said.
Council Rock serves about 200 students with autism, said Charles Lambert, the district’s director of special services. Goodnoe is a good partner for the program because it serves more than 40 students with autism, program organizers said.
The Goodnoe students with autism have difficulty with their social interactions and communication skills, and the high school students engage them in activities to work on strengthening those skills, elementary school guidance counselor Stephanie Rothrock said.
There are 21 members of the BLAST team, including seven Goodnoe students and 14 district high school students. The program organizers opted to go with a small number of Goodnoe students to get the initiative going, said Caroline Malia, the development director for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Bucks County.
Dawn Haaz, a licensed psychologist with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and intern Alexandria Milligan created a curriculum to teach specific social skills to students with autism, Rothrock said. They recruited students from the two Council Rock high schools, provided them with insight on how autism affects children and taught them how to work with the Goodnoe kids.
Haaz and Milligan supervise each session during which a Goodnoe student is paired with two high school student mentors. The teens usually are involved in other extracurricular activities besides the BLAST program, and doubling up the number of high school students ensures that at least one mentor is available to meet with the elementary student each Thursday, Malia said.
Each session of the BLAST program is divided into two parts, Haaz said. During the first half hour, the teammates work together on a worksheet that explores different situations involving coping skills, friendship and non-verbal communication, she said.
The second half of the weekly meeting is free time during which the teens and the elementary kids play different types of board games and get a chance to talk.
“I am going to win!” Jude Belson, a Goodnoe fifth-grader, exclaimed with delight last Thursday when he and his teammate Margaret Zheng played a spirited game of Uno.
Jude, 10, said he is glad he has two BLAST teammates, because his other teammate, Leah Frank, was on a marching band trip last week. Margaret met with him Thursday afternoon.
“This is my big sister,” Jude said, standing next to Margaret, a CR North freshman.
Jude’s father, Michael Belson, calls the BLAST program “a godsend” because it helps his son with coping skills.
“He doesn’t want to leave when the program is over,” Belson said.
Jude loves working with his teammates, because they give him extra assignments to work on, which he starts tackling as soon as he gets home, his dad said.
The teen volunteers said the BLAST experience has proven to be valuable for them, too.
Josee, one of Nate’s partners, said she plans to pursue a career in education. She volunteered to participate in the BLAST program to learn more about children with autism.
“It has helped me see what impact I can have on a child with autism,” the 15-year-old said.
There are a lot of benefits to the BLAST program for all the students, Lambert said. “It is another example of how important connections between our students with disabilities and their typical peers are to the Council Rock school community,” he said.
Rothrock, the Goodnoe guidance counselor, said she strongly encourages other area schools to establish a similar program for their students with autism.
“I think the BLAST program is a wonderful opportunity for high school students to make a direct impact on the lives of younger children,” Rothrock said. “The elementary school students look forward to seeing their mentors each week. They are learning valuable social skills and forming bonds with positive role models.”