BROOKVILLE — About two years ago Ellie Wingard had a dream that became a reality in less time than she could have imagined. Wingard wanted to help students in the school district with special needs.
Now a junior at Brookville Area High School, Wingard said she had an idea and “I walked down to the guidance office one day and said ‘I want to start a lunch group.’ Within a couple of weeks it turned into this massive club.”
The club became known as the Peer Connections Club.
“We currently have 20 amazing general education students who help us” in the club, she said. “I am super thankful that I have these kids that I have. I would say that we really have a group of the absolute kindest kids in the whole school. They are so caring and so compassionate.”
Five of the students form the committee, which plans and organizes activities, manages the club’s finances and other responsibilities. “The whole club is pretty much student-run. Our advisors are Mrs. (Andrea) Taylor and Mrs. (Shelby) Skerkavich. And we’ve had a lot of support from teachers and administration,” she said.
Wingard said the goal of Peer Connections “is to help the special education kids in the school district make friends. They are often cooped up in the same room all day with the exact same people. The club helps introduce them to new people.”
Peer Connections meets every Monday, with new activities each week. “We give them friendship, the peer connection,” she said. “We play games with them, we do crafts. A couple weeks ago we made slime and I think they really look forward to it, and that was my goal.”
Four students with special needs, two from junior high and two from senior high, currently participate in the club. “In the elementary school we do have a math group. Helping the younger students are club members Emma Kovacs, Danielle Maring, Lauren Barnacastle and Leah Kornbau. I was very lucky that when Mrs. Taylor came to me and said they wanted to start a math tutoring group at the elementary school, I was lucky enough that I had that group of students that was more than willing to take it,” she said.
Wingard said she is hoping to expand the club’s activities even more next year, reaching more of the elementary students. “A lot of times that’s the age when kids with special needs have a harder time making friends because younger students don’t understand the concept of it,” she said.
While some of the activities are fun activities, “whenever we are planning an activity, it’s kind of like teaching. We play board games; we play on the Wii. What you are doing looks like fun, but inside we are trying to pick activities that do have an educational benefit – fine motor skills, processing skills, people skills, teamwork. I think our club has the potential of helping students in many different aspects their lives,” she said.
The club also reaches outside the club’s meeting room with activities. “We do a lot of other stuff, like helping with the community and being kind,” she said. “We are working on spreading kindness, learning how to do kind acts. Around Christmas time we went caroling at Laurelbrooke. We were singing for them and we made cards. We’ve made things for the lunch ladies at the school and last year we made valentines for the secretaries.
“It’s not just about teaching the special ed kids. We are also teaching a lot of the general education kids about caring and compassion towards those with special needs,” Wingard said. “I’m a special needs student and it does help me understand. That’s why I started” the club. “I have a stutter and because of that I know how it feels to feel left out, and I can only imagine if I had a severe disability how I would feel.”
She said the “general education kids often help out at Special Prom and Special Olympics. For a lot of students this is a good way to get them interested in Camp Friendship. Sadly enough in society there are a lot of kids who are scared of special needs kids, just because they don’t understand them. By bringing them in we hope to teach them that special needs kids are just teenagers. They’re just kids. I started this thinking about helping those with special needs, but I really think it has helped a lot of students.”
Peer Connections is also planning to add other activities to its calendar. The first year the club was “pretty much financed” by Wingard and three of her friends: Kaleb Kalgren, Sydney Barto and Emma Kovacs. To add to the money raised through club dues, Peer Connections has just completed a fundraiser and recently received a donation from a member of the community. “We will be happy to have any donations,” she said. Donations to the club can be sent to the office of assistant principal John Lesjack.
“I have been so impressed by Ellie and her work with Peer Connections. From the beginning, it has been a true student-led initiative,” Lesjack said. “They have organized, planned, and implemented every aspect of the group, and I have been overwhelmed by the response from their peers. It is so powerful to watch students helping each other learn and grow, and I can’t wait to see what they achieve in the future.”
Peer Connections is planning its first field trip as a club. “We are planning to go to Living Treasures Animal Park in New Castle. It’s a very nice, small park, very handicapped accessible. We have one student in a chair, so there will be additional costs for extra nurses, aides and transportation,” she said.
“I am so lucky that I have a good group of friends. I’m very lucky that Brookville has offered so much help for these special needs kids, because they are capable of so much and I just wish more people could see how capable they are. I really think with getting them out in the community they can show that they are just like everyone else. They want friendships and relationships, and they really need human interaction,” she said.
The Peer Connections club “is not at all what I expected it to be but I am so happy what it has turned into,” Wingard said. “I’m very proud of it. I’ve done a lot in my 17 years, and this is by far my proudest accomplishment.”