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August 7, 2010

Expanding their abilities: New Albany students start summer camp for special needs students

NEW ALBANY — In a basement of a church filled with a mix of college and high school students, disabilities and abilities didn’t separate them as they played and worked together at various stations featuring art, music and more.

This was all part of Floyd County Special Students Summer Program, an idea created by New Albany High School graduates to help reach out and help area students with disabilities.

“We want to keep them active and busy and prepare them for life after high school,” said Samantha Harrell, president and founder of the group, who is now a student at Indiana University.

All summer they have met in the basement of Silver Street United Methodist Church every Friday to host a summer camp that featured lessons in cooking, kitchen safety and field trips that taught students how to ride a TARC bus, find work and more.

This year, the group welcomed 13 students and had a 1:1 or better ratio of volunteers (from New Albany High School and area college students on summer break) to students.

“I think people are intimidated at first with people with special needs and don’t know how to act, but you walk into this group of kids you realize they have blind love and lots of special talents,” Harrell said. “They just have different abilities.”

Volunteer Foster Lucas, 15, admitted he was always awkward around special needs people before working with this program.

“Now, I understand a lot better,” he said. “I’ve learned that everybody is equal and there’s nothing wrong with them. Everybody has abilities. They are just different.”

Volunteer Hanna Lohmeyer, 19, said she has a sister with Down syndrome, so she knows how important a program like this is.

“You see kids at [high] school that are really isolated. It does effect them and I see that at home with my sister,” Lohmeyer said. “They need social interaction and it helps them grow and makes them happy.”

She said it also prepares them to be productive members of the community.

Harrell said the program accepted students of all abilities. This summer’s group included people with second-grade mentality on up. All students were 15 to 22 years old, which is high school-age for special needs students.

Students in the program said they like having another option in the summer.

“It’s fun. You can hang out with your friends and it’s something different,” 18-year-old Ashley Sibert said. “We learned about money and how to cook and everything. Oh, and kitchen safety.”

“It’s a good program and lets you meet new friends and gives you something to do,” 18-year-old Myra Francher said. “I’d be bored at home [if it weren’t for the program].”

Though the program ended Friday since school is starting next week, Harrell hopes this is just the start of something more.

“We want it to be even bigger and better next year,” she said with a grin.

She said this has been the best way to spend a summer. Others agreed.

“This has been so rewarding,” Lohmeyer said. “The kids just give so much back to you. They are so happy and nonjudgmental. It makes you see the world is still good.”

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