The students packed into room C210 put their heads down on their desks, trying not to peek. They were playing Heads Up Seven Up, one of the activities planned for the Ohana meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 24.
The club, whose mission is to help spark friendships between special needs students and the peer buddies, meets every other Wednesday during lunch. Though meetings most often feature artistic and communicative activities — some, like the most recent — simply serve as a space in which every student can speak freely to one another.
The head of the special needs department, Eli Yamauchi, loves the environment of inclusion that is fostered at meetings, and is grateful to everyone that comes, whether for the conversations, crafts or games.
“I love that the kids have a chance to interact with students of different abilities. It makes them feel like they are a part of something,” Yamauchi said. “They always have a really good time. What I love is that the peer buddies are doing this just because they are kind people who want to help.”
At every meeting there are paraeducators — or “student helpers” that help facilitate school life for some students — who sit in the back of the room, watching the meetings unfold. Although they occasionally check up on their students, they mostly watch from the background, leaving everyone to their lunchtime conversations.
“My favorite thing about Ohana is just seeing all the students interacting with each other, laughing, talking about plans and just being engaged with each other,” special needs assistant Kimia Sohrabi said. “I think for a lot of [the students], if not all of them, [the club allows them] to be social and just be in a space that encourages and facilitates social activities,” Sohrabi said.
Yamauchi and the other paraeducators admire the club’s ability to bring out social skills in the special needs students who attend the club. They all believe the club is the perfect environment for them to grow and socialize.
The club’s members also appreciate the fact that Ohana allows them to interact with a variety of people. One of these members, or “peer buddies,” is sophomore Shwetha Patil. Patil believes that the environment created at Ohana safe for anyone to join in and make new friends. To Patil, the stress-free zone serves as a brief escape from the pressures of school.
“I really like Ohana because you get to talk to people,” Patil said. “Usually, when I talk to people, I’m really scared about them judging me and that’s what really scares you. But with these people, everyone is just together, no one judges you about what you say.”