Ashland High School student Sierra Repp has decided to take the well-being of some of her peers into her own hands. For her summer project she partnered with Project UP, an arts initiative program for students with disabilities. Repp, along with other peers and other volunteers, taught members of Project UP to work the snack shop at Little League baseball games this season.
“It’s important to recognize abilities instead of disabilities because when you recognize a disability in someone, you’re limiting them, but recognizing abilities is seeing what they can do,” Repp said. “It’s the difference between ‘you can grow’ and ‘you’re stuck.’”
Students took on roles in whatever area they wanted, whether that was making the food, sorting the candy or working the cash register. For most, this was most the first job these teenagers have ever had. Repp partnered with Zahra Detweiler, a senior at AHS who has Down syndrome, to plan the menu and staff the shifts.
“Zahra took up the cash register immediately, she guarded that thing with their life,” Repp said. “They loved getting to meet people. One of their favorite moments was when we had a line because of all the people. When most people see a line they think, ‘oh goodness.’”
Repp is an incoming senior and said she plans on passing the program onto another student next year with the hopes that it will continue for many years. She said she spent a lot of time working in the snack shop with her mother when her brother played baseball and this year they needed someone to take over, so it was a perfect opportunity to give her friends a learning experience. She’s been involved with Project UP since its inception in 2015.
Project UP is an Ashland-based nonprofit organization for high school students with a similar peer-mentoring model. Students with special needs who are normally denied access to art courses work alongside peer volunteers in a variety of classes including dance, music, improv, visual art, set making, theater, tech and performance. Project UP also sponsors a summer camp at SOU in July. (Visit its Facebook page at facebook.com/projectupashland.)
Linda Detweiler, program director for Project UP, said a unique aspect of the program is that the peer-volunteers don’t just help participants, but are their partners for these projects.
“It’s more like friendship building based around art activities,” Detweiler said. “There’s not a lot of programs like this out there.”
Repp and her colleagues raised $180 in tips to go towards the program. That money has enabled four students to attend summer camp on scholarships.
Repp said she was first introduced to the special needs skills class in elementary school when her classroom was across the hall.
“Middle school was very hard for me, I sat with the skills class at lunch and made friends, and in high school I started volunteering with Project UP,” Repp said.
There were six kids with disabilities who worked the snack shop and too many volunteer peer-leaders to count, Repp said.
“It’s exciting to see these little side projects that individuals like Sierra have done since being involved, like the snack shack and the theater club at the high school — they’re student initiated ideas of this peer-partnering model,” Detweiler said.
Detweiler said Project UP is looking for volunteers, specifically to help with fundraising and expansion. For more information or to make a donation, contact Detweiler by email at email@example.com or call 541-292-4900.
— Contact Ashland freelance writer Caitlin Fowlkes at Caitlin.firstname.lastname@example.org.