Michael Martinez ’17, Photo Editor
During my junior year, I signed up for the program known as the PEERS (positively encouraging and empowering our students) program at South Lyon High School. This program gives high school juniors and seniors a chance to work with students with disabilities in a classroom setting.
The program is the first of its kind to do this type of service and is extremely competitive due to all the qualities you must have to be a suitable mentor. As the interview and class itself got closer, all that would go through my mind is that I was only a high school student myself, so what could I possible teach someone about preparing for life? But I really wanted to make a difference, so I entered the room and as soon as I saw the smiles on their faces, I knew this was going to be the best experience of my life.
Students who are interested in the program have to fill out an application and undergo an interview with the lead teacher of the program and special education teacher Mrs. Lindsey Sitarski. If she feels you are fit to be a PEER by demonstrating maturity, enthusiasm and sincerity, then you are accepted. After receiving an acceptance letter, students are required to go through a day of training. Since many students may know how to be or properly interact in a classroom with students with disabilities, training is a necessity. This day consists of learning basic activities, how to behave in certain situations and preparation for the overall PEERS class. I was not aware of how much training was required for the program, which made me even more anxious about being a part of it. I began to doubt that I was ready to take on such a big responsibility, but I knew I wanted to be a part of this program that was making such a big difference in our community.
My job as a PEER is not just to help the students through their school day. I am a mentor to these students. My main job as a mentor is to make sure these students are comfortable in a high school setting. Bullying is a huge issue in most, if not all high school and students with disabilities tend to understand this more than anyone. It is not uncommon for people to think students with disabilities are “weird” or even “scary.” It is a tough challenge getting other students to understand that just because someone has a disability does not mean they do not have feelings like everyone else. The PEERS students always tell me that they know they do not fit in and they always felt like outsiders. After bonding with them on such a personal level, it brought me so much pain knowing that these students feel like this.
The PEERs program gave me the chance to try to help rid our school of the typical stereotype that something is actually wrong with students with disabilities. Students with disabilities are not any different than students without disabilities. My job as a PEER is to make sure other mainstream students understand that.
The intention was for me to become a mentor in the PEERS program, but it proved to be a life changing opportunity that presented me the chance to see beyond the classroom and put others’ needs before my own. Being a PEER was one of the most important experiences in my life. It allowed me to understand certain disabilities and how it affects the person who has it. It also gave me the chance to understand that students with disabilities are not any different than I am. They are human beings, and they deserve the same amount of respect that any “normal” student would get. They learn at different levels, in different time frames, and in different ways, but they teach lessons that I never expected to learn. Unexpectedly, the PEERS program taught me and helped me in an incredible amount of ways that I will never forget about.