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Mentor’s Daughter Takes on Mentor Role

Hannah and Julie Hardeman



By Julie Hardeman


Like other Parent Mentors, I find myself looking for new opportunities to support our families and students.  For my community, supported summer activities for our middle & high school ID/DD students are in great demand but few and far between in reality.  Sometimes you have to plant the “seeds” and hopefully harvest a new crop of activities that others in your community will want to replicate for future summers.

The power of the teenage mind is a bottomless resource that when tapped can come up with really great ways of developing memorable summer experiences for all kids.  With that said, I would like to share my story about my daughter Hannah’s summer experience of being a peer mentor for other students with disabilities.

As Chatham County Schools scales up ASPIRE, I am talking more often to parents about the importance of self determination and self advocacy.  For our high school students, many of these conversations have been centered on how to help parents learn to let go and let their kids take the chance of failure (in a safe environment) in order to learn how to experience the natural outcomes of learning how to self advocate.   I have found with my own kids that they needed to have the sometimes negative responses from school staff in order for them to learn how to persevere and continue advocating for what they need in their classes.

One of the key takeaways in my work is the effectiveness of peer mentors for our students who benefit from observing their peers demonstrating strong self advocacy skills in school and community settings.

While our students have opportunities to learn and practice self advocacy skills in school settings, many of these students don’t have equal access to age appropriate community based activities to also learn how to appropriately act and effectively advocate in leisure settings with their peers.

This summer,  Hannah, who is 17, decided to focus her volunteer work on serving as a peer mentor/peer support for students with significant needs who wanted to attend summer programs for typical campers but needed extra support during the day. Hannah offered to be the peer support person for a student with significant disabilities who wanted to attend a traditional 5-day camp at Oatland Island Wildlife Center in Savannah.

This opportunity came about in part from a conversation that I had with the parent earlier in May about the great need for camps with support persons for kids with disabilities.

Hannah and her new friend spent the week participating in the “Mad Scientist Camp” and conducted many science experiments with the other campers.  Each evening, Hannah would share the day’s events with me.

Hannah realized that she and her new friend would have benefitted from meeting each other prior to camp so that they both would have been more comfortable with each other and more importantly, Hannah would have been better prepared in understanding the individual’s needs.

While her new friend needed extra support with personal care and academic skills, she was able to participate in the activities and enjoyed her experiences with the other campers.

At the end of the week, Hannah was expressing great admiration for teachers of students with disabilities.  She plans to continue volunteering as a peer mentor for other students with disabilities next year.  I believe that our community could use peer mentors to help other campers successfully participate in other camps in our community.

Hannah’s comments about the need to meet the student prior to the start of the camp could easily be addressed by Parent Mentors hosting an open house for potential campers and peer mentors to connect and get to know each other.  I am hopeful that this summer experience can be scaled up to include more campers and peer mentors for next summer.

Our district was the recipient of a summer program grant from Easter Seals and DBHDD Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. Our grant was for providing ID/DD students with the opportunities to participate in the typical teen-aged summer experience.  Hannah’s second peer mentor experience was participating as a peer mentor with the group.

Hannah has participated in ASPIRE and has developed very effective self-advocacy skills during the last couple of years.  She asked a couple of her friends if they would like to volunteer to be peer mentors for high school students with ID/DD in our weeklong camp.

Our camp activities included conversations about disabilities; self-determination and self-advocacy, information about the laws of ADA, IDEA and 504; community access activities, public transit orientation and social skills.  Students had very interesting conversations about “hidden disabilities” and school impact of these disabilities. By the mid part of the week, the group had so well bonded that it was hard to tell who was mentoring and who was learning the behavior.  A lot of the success for our social skills came from the group playing board games together.

All students had a great time and the peer mentors want the school to help form a peer mentor group that can support students during the school year.  We look forward to providing more summer opportunities for our middle & high school ID/DD students in the years to come through a continued partnership with Easter Seals, DBHDD and our local school district.

Julie Hardeman serves as parent mentor in Chatham County.