Story by Jared Ritz
Photos by Nikki Carlson
When supervisor Kathy Leeds and the rest of the staff at Quality Life Concepts first tried to think of ways to get their kids involved in activities with their peers, they didn't have much luck. The developmentally disabled children they worked with were great, they knew. It was the other kids they didn't have much faith in.
"It's a time in their lives when they are pretty self-centered," Leeds said about the middle and high school-age kids she was asking to spend a few hours with those she worked with, who, especially at this point of their lives, are "kind of forgotten."
So when the staffers sent a letter to local youth groups and school organizations asking for any interested kids to spend part of their Halloween with them, they didn't exactly have high hopes.
"We sent out a letter saying, 'We're looking for a few good kids who can come mentor our kids and befriend them," she said. "We were expecting four to five (responses) at the most."
Instead, 12 local kids showed up as mentors for the first meeting of Positive Peers. Now, every two weeks kids in the program and local teenagers play games, talk and generally just hang out. A group of kids sitting around playing board games or throwing horseshoes might not sound like much, but, according to those running the program, it's exactly what these kids need.
"Because our kids are so often left out," Leeds said, "they came to the meeting pretty withdrawn and afraid of what the other kids might do." After just that first session, though, "we saw such a change in our kids because they were shown respect."
Quality Life Concepts is a private, nonprofit organization that helps those with developmental disabilities, and their families, deal with their situation and improve it. QLC employs five full-time family support specialists at its Havre office who help families by providing choices and assistance through a home-based program. Positive Peers is just one of the programs QLC puts on to achieve the goal of helping kids with lifelong growth and development.
To illustrate how much this program can change a child, Leeds points to 16-year-old Annie Englehardt, who at that first session in October was so withdrawn that, despite everyone's best efforts, she would only stare at the floor. It's hard to see that person in the outgoing, talkative girl today.
"By January, she was playing the games and helping others who didn't know what they were supposed to do," she said.
"She's just bloomed," agreed Ingrid Cartwright, a family support specialist at QLC who has worked with Annie for five years. "She went from being totally not social to totally social. (Positive Peers) really does work."
About five of the seven kids eligible for Positive Peers make it to each meeting. Leeds said she and her staff have questioned whether spending this time on just seven kids is the best use of the staff's time - there are 57 children, from infants to 18-year-olds, who are part of the QLC program- but that question was quickly answered.
"These are the seven kids who need friends. These are the seven who nobody takes the time for. It only took a couple of weeks to decide that the question of whether or not it's worth it was silly," she said. "Because it is SO worth it."
Becca Buskirk, a 15-year-old who comes to the Positive Peer sessions regularly, said her favorite part of the program is playing games with her newfound friends.
That's one of the main focuses of the program - for these kids to make real, lasting friends.
"Positive Peers is for socialization," said Cartwright. "The ultimate goal is to get them doing things and meeting people."
Teen mentor Ashley Mader, a 16-year-old junior at Havre High, said the program's positives go both ways.
"Every time you meet with them, you learn something new," she said. She's been going to the meetings since that first one in October, and has found that it brings out the best in her and the other mentors who come.
"They all just want to put love toward them, because some people push them aside," she said.
She said this program is especially good because it's strictly volunteer, meaning all of the mentors attend because they want to.
"It's a great thing to do, and a great thing to be into," she said.
Anybody attending middle school or high school is welcome to be a Positive Peer by calling 265-2620.
"We need more people who might be interested," family support specialist Tina Thomas said. "There's really no strings attached, except to come in and have fun."