For the ninth consecutive year, youngsters came together this summer for a Dublin City Schools program that uses "peer buddies" to help special-needs students build social, life and academic skills.

For the ninth consecutive year, youngsters came together this summer for a Dublin City Schools program that uses "peer buddies" to help special-needs students build social, life and academic skills.

The program incorporates turn taking, games, academic drills and field trips for students in preschool through eighth grade. About 110 students participated in this year's program, held in July at Indian Run Elementary School, the 1919 building and Sells Middle School, program director Karen Brothers said.

While the four-week summer school program was designed to help special-needs students, Brothers said she has discovered that the "peer buddies" learn just as much.

"The peer-buddy program gives back to all the students involved," said Brothers, who describes a good peer buddy as someone who is positive, persistent, kind, reliable and friendly.

"Being a peer buddy builds self-esteem, enhances problem-solving skills and makes children more assertive," she said. "It also promotes a sense of community and shows them all children are important."

During this year's program, Sells eighth-grader Cindy Karamol, 14, communicated with Katie Law, 13, using a DynaVox, an electronic device designed for people with speech and language challenges. When Karamol asked Law a question, Law pressed a button on the screen and a woman's voice answered. When asked if she enjoyed coming to this program, Law gave Karamol a high-five to indicate "yes."

"It's very special and fun to be a peer buddy," Karamol said. "The students are very smart in their own way. I want to be a special-needs teacher when I grow up."

Sells student Britney Bush, 12, has been a peer buddy to Brothers' son, 13-year-old Karrer Middle School student Rob Brothers, since Bush was in preschool.

"When I'm with my friends, we just hang out. But when I'm with Rob, we do different things than what I usually do," said Bush, who communicates with Rob using sign language. "He can do everything everyone else does, but in a different way."

Sells student Maria Gilfillan, 12, said she is happy Bush asked her to be a part of the program this summer.

"These kids treat everything they see and touch as special, and I think more people should be like that," Gilfillan said. "I look at things differently now."

When the program started, research indicated special-needs children benefited from being around "typical" kids, and "now there's research that shows typical students benefit as well," Karen Brothers said.

She said Bush was shy when she began participating in the program seven years ago and has since become confident and outgoing.

"She really has a passion for it and is determined to be a teacher," Brothers said.

Coffman High School paraprofessional Tony Bell, a former corrections officer, said peer mentors make everything easier for the special-needs students.

"We can ask a student to do something 10 times without action. But when a peer buddy models the behavior, the student jumps at the chance," he said.

Natalie Zinni's twin daughters, 14-year-olds Kristin and Lauren, participate in the program. Zinni said she appreciates the social interaction and everyday life skills her girls are learning.

"Whatever they're doing, they're doing right," Zinni said, referring to the peer-buddy program. "(My daughters) get up early, look at the schedule and are motivated to come everyday."

She said Kristin and Lauren have especially enjoyed going to Kroger to learn how to shop and to the post office to mail letters.

Sells teacher Don Barrington said he appreciates how this program bridges the gap between the end of one school year and the beginning of another.

"School can be difficult for many of them, so we try to include fun in the program," he said. "The field trips into the community give them a sense of independence. That's priceless for these guys."

Through a new initiative, the summer program will continue during the coming school year. Each school in Dublin will have a peer social club to promote interaction, Brothers said. For example, a group of students might have a pizza party, take a bowling trip or go to a high school football game together.

For information on how to join a peer social club, contact individual school offices in the fall. Applications for peer-buddy opportunities for next summer's session will be available at school offices in May.