High school group gives teens ‘real life’ experiences

WESTMONT – A Westmont High School program is giving students in the school’s special education program more real-life teenage experiences, according to one of the program’s leaders.

Sentinel Buddiez pairs students with special needs with a group of their peers. The “Buddiez” participate in monthly activities, allowing the friendships to grow.

“Sentinel Buddiez is a way for our students to get to know peers within the building and develop relationships with peers in the building,” said Laura Zacharski, a special education teacher at the high school. 

This school year, about 50 students – some are WHS students, some are students who are part of the Special Education Cooperative program – are grouped with 15 students with special needs. Each group contains about five or six peers to one buddy. 

For this month’s activity, the buddies headed out to Chicago Ridge Mall on Friday to tackle some holiday shopping followed by wrapping the gifts and writing Christmas cards. 

“A lot of buddies can’t go places by themselves,” Zacharski said. “This is a more typical age-appropriate experience for them.”

Other activities and trips include a spring bowling trip, a wheelchair floor hockey event and the Sentinel Buddiez Gala Dance.

Outside of the group events, some peers invite the buddies to eat lunch together throughout the week, according to Erin Marose, another program leader. She said the high school has become a very accepting community thanks in part to the Buddiez program, which is in its 10th year.

“The [students] enjoy getting to know someone different, learning about what their needs are and having that person look up to them,” said Marose, a math teacher at the high school.

One buddy, junior Robert Pecoraro, eats lunch twice a week with his group and said his favorite part about Sentinel Buddiez is the activities.

Marose said throughout the year, the relationships within the groups become very natural.

“By adding access to peers, you’re giving them the chance to be teenagers,” Zacharski added.

Another student said the group is also a great way to make friends.

“Sentinel Buddiez means a lot to me,” senior Dennis Arens said. “Our club makes it possible for our members who are underprivileged to interact with kids that they don’t get to see all the time.”

Arens said he has missed parts of football and basketball practices to be sure he’s in attendance, adding that he and Marose spend mornings planning fun ways to get everyone involved with the program.

Sentinel Buddies isn’t funded by the district but rather by the students, according to Marose. The kids raise enough every year to pay for all of the events – which shows how committed they are to the program, she said.

“It warms my heart when I hear that my Buddiez talk about how they love hanging out with me to their friends in class,” Arens said.