SCARBOROUGH — Most people don’t learn the value that comes with helping others until well into adulthood.
Amy Ollove is an early bloomer.
Ollove, 17 and a senior at Scarborough High School, said she’s always felt like mental illness is perceived by the general public in a different way than physical illness. She said there’s a stigma attached to mental illness that often – and especially in an environment like a public high school, where special education students are educated in different classrooms – solidifies a social divide.
Ollove was surprised, for example, to find out that some of her teachers didn’t even know many of the special ed students.
“I felt like they weren’t really included in the (school) community,” she said last week.
Ollove’s perspective isn’t from the outside. She has generalized anxiety and sometimes has to, on exam days, leave her regular classroom and take exams in separate, quieter spaces. As a straight-A student, something like that can make her feel “belittled,” she said.
While she recognizes her experience pales in comparison, the slight feeling of being different allows her to “connect a bit more easily” with special ed students, she said: “Always learning in a separate classroom, I couldn’t imagine how difficult that would be.”
Her empathy is what helped create the Buddy System, a program she organized with the cooperation of special ed teacher Courtney Norod and Guidance Counselor Florence Lusk.
It began with just Ollove’s friends as volunteers, and during her junior year was expanded to solicit help from members of the Key Club and Interact Club.
This year, interest “has really skyrocketed,” she said. So much so that Ollove is helping to start Buddy Systems at Gorham High School and Wentworth Intermediate School.
At the high school, with between 25 and 30 regular participants, Ollove is able to coordinate volunteers to take students to a handful of events each month. Earlier this month, special ed students joined volunteers at a boys’ basketball game; on Dec. 15, the group will hear the high school choral concert perform.
Lusk praised Ollove for her efforts, adding that it is very unusual for a student to diligently pursue establishment of a separate organization or cause from the ground up the way she did.
“The best ideas are often the most simple,” Lusk said.
Ollove conceived the idea two years ago as a sophomore, when she observed how easily ostracized special education students were, particularly non-verbal students.
Her intention was that the friendships created in the program would be symbiotic.
“I wanted to view it as it’s not just the volunteers helping students, but they’re also helping to teach us about the challenges they face, too,” she said.
Each month, Ollove looks at the events on the school calendar. She then schedules student volunteers to accompany special ed students to events that can be attended, like sports games and choral and band concerts. A calendar is hung on a bulletin board in one of the school’s main hallways.
Additionally, a social event is hosted once a month at school for the volunteers and students – ice breakers, games, crafts – just to give everyone an opportunity to “talk just like normal friends would,” Ollove said.
Norod said the impact the Buddy System has had on her students is obvious.
“They’re more confident and comfortable, both in interacting with each other as well as other students in the school,” Norod said. “It’s also just creating a really supportive culture in the high school, where you have mainstream regular education students, who typically wouldn’t interact with special ed students so often, but now they’re really getting to know them.”
The program also promotes sustained relationships. Norod said it’s fairly easy to tell in the morning which students spent the previous afternoon or evening with a buddy at a school event.
“I’ve had students come in (who) are just glowing – they recount all the details and just can’t wait to go to the next basketball game or concert,” she said.
“It certainly does put them outside of their comfort zone because they’re used to kind of coming to school and going home,” Norod said. “This is a wonderful way to broaden their horizons and social experiences in high school, and to just have more fun while they’re here.”
What she loves the most, she added, is walking through the hallways with students and watching them treated by others not as different, but the same.
Ollove intends to pursue drama therapy in college next year, hopefully in New York City. Drama therapy involves using performance arts to connect and achieve goals of therapy, often for individuals with mental incapacity.
She said her experience with the Buddy System has helped her hone her interest, and see the positive impact it can have.
She recalled last year seeing a special ed student who is autistic and nonverbal having trouble stacking chairs in the cafeteria. Ollove intervened and made the activity into a game of sorts, assisting by playfully pretending a chair was a bulldozer.
The student succeeded, and the episode launched a lasting friendship. It also validated for Ollove that “you don’t necessarily need (words) to reach out to your peers,” she said. “You can do it through acts of kindness.”
Senior Amy Ollove during a break at Scarborough High School. Two years ago she started a program called the Buddy System, which spurs friendships between mainstream and special education students.