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Circle of friends

Christian Heritage students step out of their comfort zones to help others

Brent Boyer

Christian Heritage School student Kerry Timmerman admits he sometimes feels uncomfortable around people with disabilities. The honest middle schooler is hardly alone.

“Sometimes it’s kind of weird,” classmate Bryn Stillwell agreed.

It’s human nature to have feelings of awkwardness or nervousness when interacting with disabled people, according to Michigan State University’s Resource Center for Peoples with Disabilities.

Getting past those feelings and discovering the joy of helping others, regardless of their ages or abilities, is a goal behind a unit taught by Christian Heritage School language arts teacher Sarah Beurskens.

Children, especially teenagers, often are unfairly criticized of being self-centered, Beurskens said. If they are self-centered, it’s often because adults fill the lives of children with sports, school and other activities that often eliminate opportunities for them to connect with people who are different from themselves, Beurskens said.

Beurskens’ “Making a Contribution” unit for her seventh- and eighth-grade students seeks to change that.

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Her 16-student language arts class has spent the past several weeks learning about the elderly and people with developmental disabilities. Students began to apply the lessons learned a couple of weeks ago, when they visited the Doak Walker Care Center to play bingo with senior residents.

Because the children had researched what happens to the body and mind at older ages, they were comfortable around the Doak Walker residents instead of feeling nervous or intimidated around people who may drool or fall asleep regularly.

“When you understand it, you’re not so afraid of it anymore,” Beurskens said.

Last week, the students welcomed a special group of visitors to Christian Heritage School — more than a dozen Horizons Specialized Services clients. Horizons is an agency that assists adults with developmental disabilities including Down’s syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and Asperger’s syndrome.

Games such as musical chairs and parachute lightened the mood and let the two groups bond. Smiles and laughter quickly became the norm at the one-hour get-together.

Some people may talk differently or look differently, Stillwell said, but in the end, the differences are what you make of them.

“They’re all pretty much the same as us,” she said.

Chrissie Hodges, Horizons’ volunteer coordinator, met with Beurskens’ students several weeks ago to discuss Horizons and possible activities the two groups could do together. That meeting led to Wednesday’s get-together.

“It’s always surprising when you see kids interact with people with disabilities,” Hodges said. Children’s initial reaction usually is that of shyness and trepidation, but both quickly fade as relationships blossom between children and those with cognitive disabilities.

Wednesday’s meeting proved no different.

Student Marci Jones befriended Aleyssa Yeagher, who is a wheelchair-user, and the two held hands throughout a couple of games of musical chairs.

Student Katy Gary spontaneously gave musical chairs’ winner Mark Leftwich a congratulatory hug.

“Come on, do you want to play basketball?” she asked him. “It’ll be fun.”

And it was fun, the guests said.

“We love it right here,” said Wendy Maldanado, referring to the afternoon spent playing with the students.

But they weren’t the only ones having a good time.

“They don’t get the opportunity to do what we do all the time,” Stillwell said. “It makes me feel good to help them and have fun with them and see them smile. And we’re having fun, too.”

The unit, which emphasizes the Christian Principle of Individuality, is showing students they can make a difference, Beurskens said.

“They do have much to give, even if it’s just playing bingo with Doak Walker (Care Center) residents or musical chairs with Horizons (clients),” she said. “It’s just so heartwarming to see that. I’m glad they could be themselves and feel comfortable.”