“It's one of the most exciting things I've ever done in my life.”
One might think that as a junior in college, Taylor Greene is talking about belonging to a sorority or maybe taking a spring break trip. But she’s actually referring to a student organization she co-runs with Emma Rebar.
They are both elementary and early childhood education majors, and they are both thrilled to be a part of Penn State Altoona’s We Are Friends group—a group that came together in what Mary Anne Mong calls a “perfect little synergy.” Mong, assistant professor of special education, wanted to form an organization in which students would have opportunities to connect with people with disabilities. At the same time, Maria Brandt from the Arc of Blair County was looking for volunteers to carry out its mission of providing education, socialization, and advocacy for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Once the two connected, their shared vision came to life in the form of We Are Friends, which is open to all students at the college. Individuals aged 18-30 who are relatively self-sufficient and who receive services from Arc can participate.
The two groups meet at the beginning of each fall semester to decide what events and activities they’d like to do during the year. Everyone’s input is welcome and considered. We Are members take it from there, planning and preparing for an activity, usually held every month.
Past events included attending a Curve game, swimming, bingo and trivia night, miniature golf, sidewalk chalking, and a dance party. Over the summer, members went kayaking at a local state park, an experience that turned out to be a highlight for everyone involved.
“It was the first time for many of us to go kayaking, but everyone was so open to trying something new,” says Greene. “I think that's one of the great things about this group, just being able to do new things with new people who have become new friends.”
Mong says it was magic watching the students be so gentle with Arc members, coaching and encouraging them. By the end of the day, all of the Arc friends had kayaked, and many were asking for second turns. “You could see the joy on their faces—they were just glowing. It turned out to be exactly what my whole vision was for this group. It was just a beautiful, beautiful day.”
From the beginning, the Penn State Altoona students saw We Are Friends as more than just an organization they could claim to volunteer for. And while they figured Arc members would be more than just casual acquaintances, they likely hadn’t foreseen just how much connection they’d make.
“There are two wonderful girls who are like my best friends,” says Greene. “We’ve gotten so close, and we hug every time we see each other. It’s so fun to see them and catch up on things and bond. It’s just amazing.”
Mong has been so pleased to see these friendships blooming. As she told the students, these aren’t instructional or coaching missions, they are times to hang out and enjoy each other’s company. “Their enthusiasm is just wildly contagious. They’ve melded together, and it all just naturally flows.”
While it may not be an instructive group, they are certainly learning from one another about life and what matters most. Emma Rebar, elementary and early childhood education major and co-president of We Are Friends, is discovering the joy of letting go. “Our friends show me that I don't have to care so much about what other people think of me. They show me that it’s okay to be who I am, be my own person. And that makes me happy.”
Although connection is really the backbone of the program, another piece of it is preparation.
Mong says even though she teaches special education in an elementary education program, her students don’t get enough opportunities to interact with kids or adults with disabilities. These skills will be imperative in their classrooms, which undoubtedly will continue seeing increases in the number of kids with learning disabilities and speech and language disorders as well as Down syndrome, autism, and ADHD.
As the students spend more time with their Arc friends, they’ve been challenging some of their own notions and prejudices about what individuals with disabilities are capable of. Some were pleasantly surprised, for example, that members with Down syndrome can carry on full conversations. Some members are talented artists, one graduated from Penn State Altoona last year while another is currently enrolled in a class at the college, and one recently got his driver’s license.
“It’s cool to see all that we have in common with people with disabilities and focus on those things rather than any differences,” says Rebar. “We’re seeing all the potential they have and how they fit into the world.”
“They're 100% capable of every single thing that we do at our group events,” adds Greene. “Their disabilities are not who they are. It’s important to see them as individuals and give them the respect they deserve as human beings.”
No matter what their major, Mong believes students in the organization can only be better teachers and better citizens by recognizing that those with disabilities can blend into the community.
So yes. One might now understand why belonging to We Are Friends is the most exciting, maybe one of the most important things Taylor Greene has done in her life so far. “It’s something I look forward to every month. I get so pumped. And I’m always asking myself how I can get more people to come and experience the joy of this club with me.”
Says Rebar, “We are all so happy when we’re together. It kind of gives you like a high to be around so many people who are just happy.”