A couple of months ago, Melanie Kennedy didn’t know many people as a freshman at Hough High and fretted about where she’d sit in the cafeteria.
She was thrilled when she found her friend, Randall Pinnock.
Now Melanie spends half of her lunch break with him and his friends every day, and she spends the other half with her girlfriends.
Randall has autism, and his verbal communication is limited. But his smiles aren’t.
Melanie and Randall met last year in the eighth grade at Bradley Middle. The school’s Special Adapted Curriculum teacher, Michelle Becker, was looking for student volunteers to spend their 45-minute study hall with her students, who have various disabilities. The peer buddy program is known, in technical terms, as reverse inclusion.
Melanie was one of the first to volunteer. She’d worked with the SAC class a little when she was in sixth grade, and had enjoyed working with two autistic first-graders at her church’s Sunday school.
She happened to sit next to Randall the first day she visited the class. “We just paired up,” Melanie said, shrugging.
Melanie assisted Randall with answering test questions and playing catch in the gym, taking walks and playing word games online. (And she learned that mentioning the music group The Wiggles works wonders in getting his attention.) She even pulled off organizing a flash mob dance in the classroom with the students to “Jingle Bell Rock” at Christmastime.
Randall was shy at first. Melanie used to wonder if he was listening to her when she talked to him. It took her a month to teach him to say her name. “The day I got him to say it, I was so excited.”
Now, Randall is confident enough when he meets someone to shake their hand and say hello.
Creating peer buddies
His eighth-grade teacher, Becker, said Randall is smart and blossomed last year. A lot of it, she said, had to do with Melanie’s friendship. Randall received the “Most Improved” award at eighth-grade graduation and Melanie the “Citizenship” award.
“For someone to embrace this as much as she has, it’s pretty rare,” Becker said. “He genuinely cares for her, and she genuinely wants him to do well; she wants him to be happy.”
The two spent time together three times this summer and had fun bowling and going to the park.
Randall’s mom, Marjorie Pinnock, said she’s been taken aback by Melanie’s compassion. Melanie occasionally calls her to talk about Randall.
“With Melanie, it’s good for him to have that friendship with someone who really cares, and she really does,” Pinnock said.
Last week at Hough, Melanie noticed Randall as he and his class returned from a field trip.
The two immediately clasped hands. Randall smiled when he saw her.
“Where did you go?” Melanie asked.
“Park,” Randall answered.
“Was it fun?”
There isn’t a peer buddy program at Hough, and Melanie is working to change that. Principal Laura Rosenbach, who was principal at Bradley last year, saw the positive effects of the program, which is now popular at Bradley. She said there will be a meeting this week to discuss how to start one at Hough.
“There’s a new level of respect (Melanie’s) helped create at Bradley, and we’re looking to create that here,” Rosenbach said.
Found her calling
Melanie’s experience has shaped what she’d like to do when she grows up. She used to want to be a veterinarian, but by middle school she knew she wanted to teach.
After her experiences with Becker’s class, she knows she’s found her calling in working with special education children.
“End of game, I’m done, this is what I want to do,” Melanie said she realized last year.
Her mom, Dori Kennedy-Eckerty, said her daughter has been changed after visiting Becker’s class every day.
“It was the first thing she’d want to talk about,” she said. “‘Guess what Randall did today?’ It was crazy how much they became a part of our dinner-table conversation.”
At Bradley, Melanie did cheerleading, morning announcements and the dance team. Now she keeps up with dance and is part of the DECA marketing club.
She’s going to practice her tumbling skills and try out for cheerleading next year, but nothing can top being a peer buddy: “That was the one part of my day I looked forward to,” she said. “He could make my bad days good.”
Ruebens: 704-358-5294; Twitter: @lruebens
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