High school student builds a way for special needs students to celebrate Earth Day

WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP, New Jersey (WPVI) -- "Students who are special needs are not all that different from us," said Lily Engelien.

Engelien, a freshman at Washington Township High School, has grown an appreciation for students in the multiple disabilities classroom setting. While she attended Bunker Hill Middle School, she was a part of the "Team Up" program.

"Students from our general education population buddy up with a student that could use an appropriate peer model," explained Laura Brodowski, a speech-pathologist at Bunker Hill.

Buddies used to attend field trips together, visit the local diner, and play games in the classroom to develop social skills they need for the future.

Engelien was planning her final activity with these students before graduating in 2020. She decided she wanted to paint birdhouses to hang in the school's two outdoor courtyards. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic stalled her project, she made right by her promise to keep it alive this morning.

"Me and my grandfather decided to make birdhouses for the kids, so we can reconnect," she said." I feel like hands-on learning is just a better way to learn when you're outside with nature."

According to multiple disabilities teacher Taryn Homolash, nature provides a unique opportunity for students to learn about the world and develop new skills. Students are particularly excited to tend to the community greenhouse, where they can grow plants and produce to send home with their favorite teachers.

"They see that we can grow our own food to eat. We don't have to necessarily buy something that comes from a package," said Homolash. "We don't have to necessarily buy something that comes from a package. it's just great for them to know that they have that power."

It's a kind of power that can be ascertained with the simple act of painting a birdhouse.

"We get to help each other," said Tristan Bowers, a 7th-grade student who enjoys when the Team Up buddies visit his class. "If we don't help each other, it could be hard."

Although Engelien has moved on from Bunker Hill Middle School, she hopes to continue working with the special needs population in high school and beyond.

"It felt really good to do something nice," she said. "It helps you and them together, so it's a really good opportunity and I would not want to give that up."

Bunker Hill Middle School, along with others in the Washington Township School District, plans to open its doors for in-person learning five days per week starting Monday, April 26. To learn more, visit their website.

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