Five Encino Park Elementary students hopped on the Ferris wheel at Morgan’s Wonderland. But Claire, a special needs student, was getting anxious because of the heights.
The other four students jumped into action.
“Let’s do the ‘Inside Out’ faces,” one said.
For the next few minutes, the five Encino Park Soaring Eagles giggled as they made faces of Joy, Disgust, Anger and Sadness. The ride was over, and they were back on the ground, safe and sound.
“When you have kids helping kids, it makes all the difference,” said Encino Park assistant principal James Miller. “Claire has gotten so much confidence this year, and without the buddies, I don’t think we’d be where we are with her.”
Encino Park created a buddy program where fifth-grade students pair up with special needs students to encourage each other. It has evolved into a Silver & Black Give Back Team Up Challenge Project, a Fun Fit Club where the students participate in healthy activities together.
Childhood obesity rates are 38 percent higher for children with disabilities.
On Thursday, two new buddies joined the Encino Park students: Danny Green and Patty Mills.
They went on rides and went fishing at the world’s only completely wheelchair-accessible theme park, Morgan’s, which has served more than 1 million visitors since it opened in 2010.
“Those kids are better than us at helping the disabled,” Green said. “I learned a lot from them. It’s kind of mind-blowing how much they know about life at that age. I didn’t know how to encourage, lead, help others and sacrifice for others like they do. It shows a lot of character.”
The Team Up Challenge, a service-learning program, empowers children to give back to their communities through service projects. Over the course of the year, Silver & Black Give Back awards over $350,000 to schools and nonprofit organizations to bring these projects to life.
Next week, the Team Up Challenge will award $20,000 each to five schools to continue their projects.
“We play basketball, but there are a lot bigger things out there like this event today,” Mills said.
At Encino Park, Miller said the buddy program has helped the special needs students come out of their shells and improved their speech and language.
Buddies Ryne and Bryan spent the day with Danny Green at Morgan’s. Ryne is a fifth-grader with a sister who has special needs. Through the buddy program, Ryne said he’s learned as much from Bryan as Bryan has learned from him.
“We even have a secret handshake,” Bryan said. “I like being his buddy.”