Monday, April 4, 2011

NC high school friendship group provides support, comradery between disabled, nondisabled students

From Sea Coast online:

DURHAM, N.C. — When Hannah Kendrick watched her friends graduate from Exeter High School and move onto college, she questioned why she wasn't doing the same.

The 21-year-old Stratham resident, who has Down syndrome, has found her own college experience with Wildcat Friends, a program for young adults with developmental disabilities who have graduated high school, run through the Friends Project based in Portsmouth.

Every Wednesday, the students with disabilities experience a typical college afternoon at the University of New Hampshire, with a class geared toward their interests, a recreational activity and lunch at the dining hall. Several UNH students participate in the program, volunteering to help orchestrate programming, enhance the social aspects of Wildcat Friends, and more.

"Even though it's just a few hours on Wednesdays, it doesn't matter, she's going to college," said Hannah's mother, Jo-Ann Kendrick, adding that her daughter works at a local preschool and is taking early childhood education classes at Great Bay Community College.

To support programs like Wildcat Friends, the Friends Project is holding its largest annual fund-raiser on Saturday, April 9, called "A Night in Tuscany." The evening includes a dinner with Italian flair, live and silent auctions, and music and dancing. Auction items include gift certificates to local restaurants and businesses, a boat ride to the Isles of Shoals, Red Sox tickets and more. All are welcome to attend the event, which Kendrick called "tons of fun."

For the 31 Wildcat Friends participants, the weekly program is just that.

"Basically, what it is, you get to be out in the community and interact with people that have special needs that are the same as you," said participant David Smart, 24, of Exeter. "Not many people get this opportunity."

Kelly Ryan, a Friends Project staff member and UNH student, has seen participants flourish in the Wildcat Friends program. Some, she said, were not social upon joining the group, and now they mingle during lunch and help others feel included.

"The changes they've shown are drastic. It's a great way for them to have an academic experience without the pressure most college students have," said Ryan, who is slated to graduate with a degree in therapeutic recreation in May. "This is something that's so rare, it's just so special. It helps so many people and there's so many ways it could grow."