LIVINGSTON, NJ- On Friday, June 9, 64 fourth-grade Hillside Elementary students visited the Horizon Lower School to participate in what they called a “Hillside Horizon Helping Hands Day.” Each year, the Livingston Board of Education requires that all fourth grade classes contribute to the community through a community service project. In September, Hillside’s fourth grade teachers agreed to do their community service at the Horizon School.
During the day, eight stations were set up throughout the Horizon School. Each Hillside student was given the opportunity to run a station, choosing between music, computers, cooking, bowling, building blocks, drama, science and art. The Horizon students picked three stations that interested them and spent 30 minutes in each group activity.
The Hillside students interacted with the Horizon kids by participating in activities that were both fun and educational. The Horizon students learned how to play instrument and perform dances to “Under the Sea” while the Hillside students learned about the different learning and communication devices that disabled children use every day.
“The Horizon staff was very impressed with how our students were responding to the Hillside kids,” said Lisa Diorio, a Physical Therapist Assistant and certified Aquatic Therapist at the Horizon School. “One of the biggest challenges in special education is giving your students the opportunity for peer interaction with typically developing kids; they really do learn from each other.”
The teachers at Hillside teamed up with Diorio, whose daughter is a fourth-grade student, to plan the event over the course of the school year. In November, Diorio met with fourth graders to run a disability awareness training that allowed students to experience what it’s like for kids with physical challenges.
Like many of the Horizon students, the Hillside students learned how it felt to live with physical disabilities, sensory processing disorders, visual and hearing impairments and language communication disorders.
The training gave the students a new understanding about kids their age who have disabilities that go to school in their community. With this in mind, the students were prepared for the June peer-to-peer interaction with the Horizon kids.
According to Diorio, the goal of the project was to bring awareness to Hillside Students so that they could understand that when they see a child with disabilities out in the community it is okay to interact with them.
“They need to look beyond the wheelchair or whatever that child is challenged with and see the kid behind it all,” said Diorio. “I wanted Hillside kids to understand that not everybody walks, talks and plays like they do.”
At the end of the morning, the 4th graders gathered to discuss what they learned. At one station, two girls asked a non-verbal girl what type of music she likes and using her communication device, the girl hit “Justin Beiber.” After instances like these, many said they learned that just because a person can’t verbally communicate, doesn’t mean they don’t understand you.
“It was a good opportunity to help them understand different ways of live,” said 10-year-old Nicki Depalma. “Even though kids are different they are just like us and can still have fun.”
Sofia Joachim, another Hillside student, was happy to meet new friends and understand what they want to do. She enjoyed seeing the Horizon performing arts production of “The Wizard of Oz” in February, so she was excited to be able to help out in a lot of ways.
“I think I’ll leave with more understanding,” she said. “I’ve never seen this before so it’s a new experience to feel how they feel.”
One student said that just because a person looks, talks or learns differently doesn’t mean they’re not smart and was impressed by how much they can do. Some students found that many of the Horizon students liked the same things they liked.
“The best part of an event like this is seeing it all come together and work out just as you had hoped it would,” Diorio said. “It was a win, win for both schools.”
Diorio called The Hillside Horizon Helping Hands Day a “mission accomplished.” She said the Hillside kids walked out of Horizon School with not only a better understanding about disabilities, but also a better understanding that these special needs students were a lot like them.
“Being different doesn’t describe or define your personality,” said 10-year-old Jessie Bullion. “It doesn’t matter how you look it just matters how you feel about yourself.”