NSSRA and Glenbrook South High School Partner in Peer Mentoring Workshop

Sarah Erickson (right) of Glenview cheers on students tasked with making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches one-handed.

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Northbrook – October 19, 2017 – Earlier this month NSSRA staff spent a morning at Glenbrook South High School facilitating a disability awareness workshop for the school’s incoming group of peer mentors. The workshop is an annual event in partnership with GBS, and helps to support the school’s nearly three-decade running Peer Mentoring program.

In addition to training and question and answer sessions, the bulk of the morning was set aside to guide the thirty students in attendance through a series of “Rush Hour” activities designed to give mentors experience in handling some of the challenges a person with a disability may deal with on a daily basis. Seventeen activities in all, there were several stations set up throughout the room and students were given only a few minutes to complete each task. Challenges included everything from making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with one hand, sorting beads and small objects while wearing thick gloves, assembling puzzles blindfolded, and using binoculars to walk a zig-zag line.

“At the end of the morning, one of the students began by saying how frustrated she felt by so many of the activities, but was able to laugh it off and move on because she knew it was only part of the training,” recalled Dani Kern, NSSRA Recreation Manager. “She went on to explain that it really put into perspective for her that others may not be able to laugh it off or move on because this is a real struggle many of her peers experience every day.”

The eye-opening experience that many mentors have at the workshop continues throughout the year when they are paired with one or several students, sometimes in a special education classroom or sometimes in an activity outside the classroom, like P.E. The exercise of putting oneself in another’s shoes is just what allows them to bond and create relationships with their peers. It’s part of why the program works so well, and serves as a bridge builder between students in both mainstream and special education classes.

“I joined peer mentoring kind of on a whim,” said Sarah Erickson, who is in her second year as a peer mentor, and serving on the school’s student peer mentoring board. Erickson helped facilitate the workshop with NSSRA. “I never thought I would love it as much as I do. Last year I was a peer mentor in an English class and part of a lunch group that met once a week,” Erickson continued. “It soon became my favorite lunch of the week. I got to know these kids and we became really good friends.”

NSSRA was founded in 1970 and serves over 1,500 children, teens and adults with disabilities living in its partner communities throughout the northern suburbs, including Glenview and Northbrook. Offering hundreds of programs throughout the year, NSSRA is dedicated to creating new experiences for participants, and also to cultivating friendships. Partnering with GBS’ Peer Mentoring program is the perfect opportunity to see that goal come to life.

On paper, there are official requirements for becoming a peer mentor, things like attending class regularly, meeting with their mentee and attending regular meetings outside of their mentoring block. Mentors are evaluated and receive a letter grade and credit for their time. Yet, the relationships that are formed between students is really where the magic happens.

“It’s ended up impacting me a lot more than I thought it would,” said Erickson. “One part that really surprised me was how defensive I get about the kids. I think a lot of people think jokes about special needs kids are funny, but when I hear other students make jokes or comments, it really bothers me. They are my friends and they are some of the most genuinely caring people in this school. I’ve literally said things to random kids and I know that if I ever heard one of my other friends say something, I would talk to them. Peer mentoring has been a truly extraordinary experience and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

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NSSRA provides and facilitates year-round recreation programs and services for children, teens and adults with disabilities who live in the partner communities. NSSRA is an extension of ten park districts, two cities and one village in the northern suburbs of Chicago. This partnership includes the Park Districts of Deerfield, Glencoe, Glenview, Highland Park, Kenilworth, Lake Bluff, Northbrook, Northfield, Wilmette and Winnetka; the Cities of Highwood and Lake Forest; and the Village of Riverwoods. NSSRA has been creating an environment of belonging through play since 1970, and has the distinction as the first Special Recreation Association in the country. For more information about NSSRA and the programs and services they provide visit www.nssra.org.