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In Helping Disabled, Girls Helping Themselves

March 20, 1998|DEBRA CANO

At Canyon Hills School, a campus in Anaheim Hills for students with a range of disabilities, children are given a helping hand by a dozen girls ages 12 to 18 with problems of their own: They live in Olive Crest homes for neglected, abused and abandoned youths.

The girls, all wards of the court, have earned the opportunity to work with the school's 80 disabled children--a unique relationship that teachers say benefits all.

When the girls befriend the students, their attitudes and perspectives about life change, and, some are even inspired to work with the disabled as adults, Carole Pei, a teacher at the school, said.

"It's gone from 'Gimme, gimme' to 'What can I give?' Their self-esteem just rises so much," Pei said.

On a daily basis, the girls help the students--many of whom are in wheelchairs--with a variety of tasks, including working on motor and speech skills. The girls also lead morning exercises, guiding disabled students as they stretch their arms and touch their toes. At recess, they push students in their wheelchairs to the playground and play ball with them, put them on swings and just socialize.

"They're giving us the extra help we need," Susan Seekatz, a special education teacher, said. "When they leave, they have a whole different view of the world."

During recess on a recent morning, a teen working with a disabled boy talked about how volunteering at the school has changed her life.

"When I first came here, I didn't want to be touched because of my past," the teen said as she grasped the boy's hands. "Now, it's OK. I don't mind it because he has to hold my hands."

Another 15-year-old admitted that at first she didn't want to work with the disabled, but is now glad she gave it a try: "It makes me feel appreciated. . . . I can really help those kids."

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