BLOOMINGTON - The Buddy Program at Grove Elementary School made Austin Mace's 10th birthday party an especially happy one.
His mother, Jacquie Mace, always had invited his friends who also had autism or were in his special-needs classes to his birthday party, but this time his teacher encouraged her to invite Austin's other classmates, too.
"I invited 13 kids (in mainstream classes) and would have been happy if one or two came. All 13 came," Jacquie Mace said.
The Buddy Program at Grove, now in its fifth year, matches special-needs children with supportive fourth- and fifth-graders in mainstream classes. The goal of this and similar programs in other Unit 5 schools is for the students to learn from each other and become friends in the process.
Mace saw that program pay off in spades. Or in Austin's case, elephants.
He received 11 of them for his birthday, Mace said. "The kids really know him and what he likes," she said.
The fact that mainstream children really know her son is a big plus for Mace.
"As much as anything, it is about comfort level - to send your child to school and know he is not only accepted, but welcomed," she said.
Chuck Hartseil, director of special education for the Normal-based Unit 5 school district, said a hoped-for side effect is that when they grow up and become employees and employers, they will be more receptive to people with disabilities.
"That benefits us all," Hartseil said.
Buddies usually connect at lunch breaks and during recess and reading times. Some older students also have Buddies in academic classes.
Fifth-grader Hope Saunders is a Buddy.
"I like helping the younger kids a lot. I like to play with them," she said as she pushed her kindergarten and second-grade Buddies on the swings during recess early this week. "It's a lot of fun."
Five Buddies help teach Kacy Menestrina's six students - kindergarten to second-grade children with severe cognitive challenges - everyday skills, such as how to go through the lunch line.
At the beginning of the school year, Grove's special-education teachers go into the mainstream classes and talk about the Buddy Program and the challenges special-education children face, Menestrina said.
For Menestrina, part of that is explaining how to interpret the behavior of her largely nonverbal students.
"They love learning about all the communication devices and helping students learn to use them," she said.
Special-education teacher Deb Lawson said her third- to fifth-grade students also get Buddy help in academic classes. In turn, some of her students significantly contribute to the classes they are in.
She said Logan Nichols, a fourth-grader who has autism, inspires his social studies classmates with his impressive ability to name all the states, when they came into the union, and their capitals. He also knows all the presidents, Lawson said.
"It's really reciprocal," she said.
Special-education teacher Kara McMahill said the Buddies are good at teaching her 11 students "appropriate play." The older Buddies initiate a game or activity and lead it without a teacher.
The volunteers learn responsibility and other skills, such as time management. For example, they have to finish their homework before they can volunteer.
Special-education teachers also see some benefits for themselves. "It helps us feel more part of the school," Menestrina said.