One by one, a group of students returned to school long after classes had ended, each bearing food to share and a wide smile. Taking special care not to slip on the icy surface that had coated every entrance, the teens congregated in the special education classroom, laughing and joking between juicy bites of homemade tacos.
Their purpose? To celebrate the differences that make each person unique through Park City's first KIT (Kids Inclusion Together) Club. The club's goal is to encourage students in and out of special educational programs to build lasting friendships through social outings.
Club president and PCHS senior Hailey Whipple explained that she was inspired to create a local KIT Club after peer tutoring (assisting in special education classrooms) for 4 years. "When I was 10 years old my cousin was diagnosed with a form of autism. All of a sudden others started treating her differently and it really affected her. Ever since then I've been really into special education and making sure everyone is treated equally."
The connections students form through peer tutoring offer emotional and social rewards for both teenagers with and without disabilities. Involvement in shared goals gives students in and out of the special education program a chance to understand and respect each other.
On any given day, the importance students place upon these friendships is apparent at the high school as peer tutors and students eat lunch together and exchange greetings and hugs in crowded school hallways.
Katie Davis, an intern for Park City's special education department, grinned as she described her relationship with Jezzy, the peer she works with. "I love her. I love spending time with her. I still remember the first time that she actually smiled at me and gave me a hug because at first she didn't want anything to do with me at all, and now, whenever she's happy, she gives me hugs. It's really building my confidence as well, this is what I want to do."
Remarked Katerina Stafsholt, a student in the special education class, "[Being peer tutored has] been really fun and it is always helpful. [My peer tutor] and I are best friends because we get along with each other."
KIT club members are hoping the group will provide chances for a broader range of students to build such relationships with one another in a setting where everyone is treated the same.
"I've learned so much because kids with disabilities, they never give up. Never ever. That's a quality I wish I had," reflected peer tutor Cozy Huggins on her eight-year experience working with special education.
Society often has ideas about and labels for people with disabilities that minimize their talents and perpetuate social distances between those with and without disabilities. With the creation of the KIT club, Park City teenagers are hoping to lead the charge in reversing negative stereotypes and encouraging equal treatment for all.