Dr. Diane Casale-Giannola says that while her students have much to offer their visitors in the Rider Friendships program, their guests do not arrive for their monthly visits in Memorial Hall with nothing in return. Giannola, an associate professor of Teacher Education, launched the program in October to allow young area adults with varied developmental disabilities to interact in a social experience with their typical functioning peers – in this case, special education students from Rider’s Teacher Education program.
At their most recent gathering, Giannola watched with delight as a number of the “friends” – primarily individuals with autism and mental retardation – regaled the Rider undergraduates with tales of travel to exotic locales around the earth, showing them that friendship is a two-way street.
“As the program began, you could see our students feeling the situation out, sticking to our objectives like teaching them appropriate social skills for various situations,” Giannola explained. “But by this month, it was much more conversational between the students from the community and our students, and we came to find out that many of the students are actually experienced world travelers. I was watching them tell my students about their trips to Israel, Japan, New Zealand, England and Australia, while some of my own students haven’t been to New York City!”
To Giannola, the moment represented a heartening conclusion to a very successful first semester of Rider Friendships, a program she says emerged from an outgrowth of concern by area parents about the educational futures of their children. New Jersey law provides for the education and care of students with disabilities by local school districts through the age of 21, but beyond that, their situations are foggier, and often are dependent upon the parents.
“Formal education for individuals with developmental disabilities often ends with high school, and there are limited post-secondary supports,” Giannola explained. “Rider Friendships supports these individuals from the community as well as their parents.”
Over the past few years, she was often asked by such parents if there was anything she could do to alleviate their concerns. “They said, ‘We need peer supports, and places our children can socialize and develop social skills,’” Giannola said. “So Rider Friendships emerged from that request.”
Through the program, which is sponsored by the Council for Exceptional Children, 10 students, all currently from the West Windsor-Plainsboro (N.J.) school district, visit Rider once a month for two hours. There, they meet with the five participating Rider students, who are, in this case, their “typical functioning peers,” in the parlance of special education.
Essentially, the goal of Rider Friendships is to facilitate typical social interaction, but the program is flexibly structured to provide objective-based activities for the monthly visits. “A student from the community may be having a problem at work – perhaps at a supermarket – and has to deal with those issues,” Giannola said. “In our program, we may use role-playing to work through that, to develop responses that are appropriate and productive.”
Other times, sharpening social skills may involve a focus on etiquette. “When you go to someone’s house at Thanksgiving, for example, you want to bring something and be sure to thank them for their hospitality,” Giannola explained. “But the most important thing is to have fun. There is always something going on, even if it’s dancing or making crafts. It’s fun for everyone.”
Indeed, Giannola said that program has been mutually beneficial to both groups of participants. While the students from the community have the opportunity to socialize in an inclusive setting, the Rider students gain valuable experience working with a population with whom they may very well spend their entire teaching careers. “It’s a learning experience on both ends. My students aren’t merely learning how to be teachers,” Giannola said. “They’re learning how much alike they really are with the students from the community.”
Lisa Tremonte, a junior Elementary Education and Psychology dual major from Totowa, N.J., agrees. “I love it. It’s really a lot of fun for all of us, and we learn a lot from each other,” said Tremonte, who is planning to apply for a Fulbright scholarship this spring. “At our last meeting, we shared our feelings about the holidays, and I thought their thoughts on the subject were so deep, and very meaningful. They reflected on relatives they have lost over the years with whom they aren’t able to spend holidays anymore.”
All Rider students participating in Rider Friendships must at least be juniors who have completed the SPE: Society and Individuals with Disabilities course, and be able to meet at least twice per month – once for the peer sessions and once for planning. Those who have not been involved in planning are not permitted to participate in peer sessions.
In addition to Tremonte, the Rider Friendships team is composed of Rebecca Lundgren, a junior Elementary Education and English dual major; Jackie Murtha, a junior Elementary Education and Psychology dual major; Liz Sterling, a junior Elementary Education major; and Katelyn LaRocca, a junior Psychology major. Together, they have provided a solid foundation for a program Giannola hopes to expand. “They have all been completely committed,” she said. “This is something they do strictly on a volunteer basis that involves a lot of hard work, and for which they receive no academic credit. Overall, it’s not just about educating, but a true ‘feel-good’ experience. Everyone wins.”