In an effort to promote acceptance and awareness, an Ida S. Baker High School club partners students with intellectual disabilities and their peers.
Baker Buddies is a partnership between "typical developing," general education students and students in the school's life skills program. It was initially a "social inclusion club" when it was started a few years ago.
Theresa Morosco, a life skills teacher and Baker Buddies advisor, said the students would participate in activities on and off campus after school.
Ida Baker peer mentor Syniah Clark helps Christian Diggs with a money skills lesson.
"Over the years, it's grown into a class, too," she said, adding that the after-school program remains active and intact.
According to Morosco, the life skills students have "varying types of intellectual disabilities," such as autism, Down syndrome or others. She and another teacher each oversee a class of about 22 life skills students.
In each class, there are four to eight peer mentor students - general education students signed up for the class portion of Baker Buddies.
"They help my students with academic tasks in my classroom. They also escort and mentor the students out in general education classes," Morosco said. "They work both in the classroom and throughout the campus."
For the life skills students, it opens the door to opportunities.
"We want the students with disabilities to be included in every area of our school," she said.
Twenty-five years ago, students with disabilities took part in perhaps one general art class, while spending most of their time learning in one room.
"This gives them full exposure to everything that Ida Baker has to offer," Morosco said.
It also enables her and the other life skills teacher to place more of their students in "full-inclusion classes" because help is readily available.
"They can get one-on-one assistance to help them in the classes by their peer mentors," she said.
For the student mentors, the class counts toward one elective.
"We even have a selection process," Morosco said. "There can be a waiting list at times."
For Ida Baker senior Hannah Harvel - and the other mentors - Baker Buddies does more than just fulfill a graduation requirement, however. The club's co-president, Harvel explained that her uncle has cerebral palsy.
"We would walk through the mall and people would look. Of course, they didn't understand, so they would stare," she said.
"I want to help people understand disabilities," Harvel said.
As a peer mentor, she explained that she helps the life skills students in their classes, but that the bonds extend beyond that to friendship.
"Just understanding the basics so they can live an individual life," Harvel said. "You become great friends with people in the class."
Because of this, playing the role of a disciplinary can be difficult.
"You want to treat them as a brother or sister, not a student - there are limits there that you have to put up," she said.
Still Harvel encourages others to join the program when asked about it.
"I've definitely grown as a person," she said, adding that the life skills students do not judge. "It has definitely shaped me to be a person."
According to Morosco, students selected to be peer mentors in the Baker Buddies program show leadership skills and have a sense of empathy.
"They have to understand. They have to want to help," she said.
"At times, they do have to take a leadership role in working with other students and talking with other general education students," Morosco said.
In some cases, mentors have found their leadership skills in class.
"They've blossomed in here," she said.
Morosco added that program participants receive equal benefits.
"One hundred percent it's a win-win situation," she said.
Ida Baker senior Devin Cannon, a Baker Buddies senior advisor and past co-president in the club, could not agree more. Cannon has Down syndrome.
"It is good. It is awesome," he said of the program.
Cannon explained that he has gone to ice cream socials with his mentors, and that they have helped him in swim practice and with his computer classes.
"They helped lots," he said.
According to Cannon, the program provides him with friends and new classmates, and he gets to "sit around and chat" with his mentors.
The only change he suggests is extending the program beyond graduation.
Baker Buddies will host its Fourth Annual Baker Buddies Bash from 1-5 p.m. Feb. 2 at Miceli's Restaurant, 3930 Pine Island Road in Matlacha. Three bands - Ground Down, Grayson Rogers Band and Grove Alliance - will perform.
Miceli's will donate 25 percent of the food purchases to the club.
"It supports our after-school social inclusion club," Morosco said. "So the activities we do together, we don't have to charge students a lot of money to go to the movies or whatever."