Warren club embraces autistic students

DOWNEY - The growing impact of a little-known extra-curricular program begun three years ago at Warren High School by special ed teacher Christine Spino and a small group of students originally known as the 'Lunch Bunch' has earned unqualified high praise at least from principal John Harris.Noticing initially that students with autistic problems were loath to mingle easily and naturally with the other students and otherwise kept to themselves, the pioneering peer (general education) students, under Spino's guidance and supervision, decided to do something about it. Their approach was to use the two lunch times on Mondays and Wednesdays, one from 11-11:30 a.m. and the other from 12-12:30 p.m., to try to befriend the disadvantaged students and engage them in conversation and, later, lunch, to get them involved in such activities as card games (bingo, goldfish, etc.). The program has since embraced students with Down syndrome, those with orthopedic impairments, those with mental retardation, etc. Out of a total population of 3,798 high schoolers, there are 323 students with special needs at Warren, according to Laura Rivas, who joined Warren less than a year ago as assistant principal for curriculum and guidance. . Much to everyone's surprise, the program today has grown from a peer/donor group of ten students to at least 40 willing, dedicated, selfless and eager members (and "growing by the day"), with minimum supervision from Spino. "This willingness to sacrifice their time and energy is praiseworthy in itself," she says, as well as others who are aware of the program. And all are in agreement that the program works both ways. "This program is a learning experience for the volunteers while it rounds out the special needs students' development," she says. The 9th to 12th graders comprise the program's membership, both 'mentor' and 'taught.' Spino, a BA graduate of, as well as acquiring her credential from, Cal State Long Beach, says the word mentioned most to describe the benefit gained by the 'donor' students is the virtue of patience. The students with special needs ("Each student's needs are different") gain social and communication skills, in addition to functional skills gained in the classroom leading to employable and lifelong skills that point to a life of independence. Now known as the Teen Connection, it endows the volunteer students with credit points as well. Because of its popularity, the program's current ratio of peer-to-beneficiary is approaching a whopping 4-to-1 (ratio). The group is split into two: president of the first lunch group is Melissa Bueno, who says, "I enjoy working with these special needs kids so much. Interacting with them makes my day." Bueno plans to either work with special ed kids or become an ultra-sound technician. Kaytlin Sullivan, her vice-president, and who plans to be a pre-school teacher or a forensic paleoanthropologist, says, "The program makes me feel good. We try to keep them laughing. The program actually builds friendships and relationships. And we're also learning from them all the time." Jasmin Herrera, president of the second lunch group, who has "lots of little brothers and sisters," says, "I feel like a big sister to them." She plans to be a veterinarian. "When the general run of teens today is totally self-absorbed and self-centered and into iPods and texting," says Rivas, "it's hard to picture these other wonderful kids donating their time to help kids with special needs in such a meaningful way." As far as anybody knows, the program is unique to Warren High. Says Harris: "I think this program is cool."

********** Published: December 30, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 37