Special-needs students matched with high schoolers on 'You've Got A Friend Day'
With leaves falling to the ground on a cool breeze, Natalie Kovatch helped her “buddy” Ashley from Clairview School to reel in a fishing line at Twin Lakes Park.
“Give it a little tug,” said Kovatch, a senior at Greater Latrobe, but no fish had caught on the line.
Ashley didn't mind, however, smiling as she waved and high-fived her friends passing on the pathway behind her.
The pair were among 1,100 students at the park as a part of You've Got A Friend Day held by Westmoreland County Parks and Recreation.
About 700 special-needs children from 14 different schools and classrooms are matched with 400 high school volunteers representing 10 schools, said Matt Bruno, program coordinator with the department.
After about 15 years, the program has grown, Bruno said, but it still features favorites such as hayrides, paddle boats, magic shows and a petting zoo.
“Everybody just comes out to the park and has fun,” he said. “I know everybody leaves happy from both directions.”
Kovatch said she, Ashley and another buddy, Jared, rode the paddle boats across the lake at the park east of Greensburg, “ate lots of popcorn” and planned to take in the magic show.
“I think it's a great event, and I'd take the time out of my day anytime to do it again,” said Kovatch, who was attending with student council.
Linda Hickman, a classroom assistant at Clairview, said she is glad her students had the opportunity to come to the park. “It's just a nice, calm day for them to enjoy,” she said.
Long lines gave buddies time to interact with students spread out across the shores of the lower lake.
While waiting for balloon animals, Greensburg Salem junior Theodore Russell held on to 6-year-old Nathan and bounced him up and down.
The young boy told his other buddy, Cierra Noel, a Greensburg Salem junior, that he wanted a green sword from the clown.
“I just love to see the kids so happy,” Cierra said.
Mary Jo Holtzer, a teacher from the primary autistic support class at Hutchinson Elementary in Southwest Greensburg, said each year she is impressed with how well the high school students take care of those with special needs.
“They've always been really nice and supportive and helpful with the kids,” she said, adding that she appreciates the social interaction for the seven students she brought to this year's event.
In line for the hay rides, Don Wilcox, a Derry Area senior, was paired with 16-year-old Alyssa and her 18-year-old friend Shannon from Clairview.
The girls chatted with Wilcox, who said he was a little nervous at the beginning of the day.
“I didn't know if I was going to have a cool buddy, but I do, my buddy's awesome,” he said.
Derry Area Interact club adviser Debbie Bushey, who has brought students to the event for more than 10 years, said it teaches students to be patient and selfless, even though it wears them out.
“There's no rest for them. Sometimes that's very tiring emotionally as well as physically,” she said. “It's also amazing because this is not about the high school kids, it's about these buddies.”
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.