The Karen Gaffney Foundation
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What is the "Friends First" Program?

The "Friends First" program gives students with disabilities and those without, the chance to form a club, establish friendships and work collaboratively on a service project of their choice to benefit their school or community.

The "Friends First" program has three main components to it. The first is to form an official club at the participating school. Having an official club gives students the chance to be a part of an extra curricular program at their school. The "Friends First" club will have on going discussions around diversity and ability issues and will bring in guest speakers to help facilitate these discussions. The students in "Friends First" will also go through diversity awareness and teambuilding training put on by the Karen Gaffney Foundation.

The second component is social. Going to school can be a lonely and isolating experience for students with disabilities who often feel separate from their typically developing peers. "Friends First" provides a way to role model acceptance and inclusion for all students by providing a social structure for students with disabilities and those with out to come together to get to know each other. "Friends First" pairs students with out disabilities with a friend who has a disability. This idea differs from a peer mentor program as the "Friends First" pairs of students are forming peer friendships, rather than relationships that place one student in a position of authority. Students in the "Friends First" club take on supporting each other and being friends. This may involve meeting for lunch once a week, watching out for each other in the halls, sitting together during assemblies or going to school games and rallies together. Not everyday…but enough to make a difference.

The third element of this program is a service learning component. The students involved in the "Friends First" club select a service project they think will benefit their school or community. The students will work collaboratively on this project as a club. Working on a service project will allow for students to get to know each other while they are focused on a common goal. Students with out disabilities will have the opportunity to experience the contributions made by students with disabilities. Students with disabilities will have the opportunity to spend time with their peers outside of the classroom. They will be able to experience being valued for their thoughts and creativity.

Getting "Friends First" Started at Your School

How do we start a "Friends First" program at our school? The Karen Gaffney Foundation along with the ORPTI has developed a program curriculum for getting the "Friends First" program started in schools. Here is how we get started:

Introduction. Karen Gaffney and Bri Maier from the Karen Gaffney Foundation will meet with interested faculty and students to look at how they see the "Friends First" program fitting into their school. We will review the key elements of the program and the structure for getting started. We will identify ways that the program can be introduced into the existing structure of the school.

Select a faculty advisor. We then find an existing staff member who is willing to serve as the club's official advisor. (note: this can be but does not have to be the special education teacher).

Form an official school club. We then apply for official club status with in the school and are held accountable to the rules and regulations of other existing school organizations.

Announcing "Friends First"! We then put an announcement in the school bulletin telling students about "Friends First" and inviting them to participate. The announcement also states the meeting time and place.

Kick-off "Friends First" Meeting. Target Audience: Interested students who have come together as a result of promotions along with the faculty advisor.
To share with the students why there is a need for a program like "Friends First".
To provide information about how the "Friends First" program works, and to define the different aspects of the program.
To invite students to become involved with "Friends First" on their campus.

(optimum meeting time is 30 – 45 minutes, can adjust per school schedule)

Getting Started "Friends First" Meeting. Target Audience: Initial members of the "Friends First" club and the faculty advisor.
To develop a "getting started plan" and create a check list of requirements to form a new club on campus.

  • We will work from a template to help guide the organization of the club and encourage creativity and ownership by the student organizers.
  • We will elect officers and assign responsibilities and time frames for establishing the club in the schools network of clubs.
  • We will set a time for a third meeting in order to create a roadmap about what the future of the "Friends First" program will look like, i.e. timing for meetings, meeting topics, possible assemblies, activities friends can do together, possible service projects, linking with other schools who are starting up, etc.

Optimum meeting time for this is about 60 minutes.

Future meetings scheduled according to the plan devised above.

Training Sessions.
The Karen Gaffney Foundation will put on a training session for the students who are involved with the "Friends First" program.
Audience: Students (and teachers if they want to be included).
To set students up for success by preparing them to work together by:

  • Having honest conversations about disabilities
  • Talking about how their peers might react when they find out they are a part of "Friends First"
  • Engaging in teambuilding activities

Training Time:
The Karen Gaffney Foundation will work with the individual schools to find training time. Trainings can be spread out into small sessions once a week, or can be given together during one large training session depending on the needs of the school.

Diversity Assembly (optional). The Karen Gaffney Foundation will put on a diversity assembly to promote the "Friends First" Club and diversity on campus if the participating school believes it to be beneficial to the student body. This can happen anytime during the school year and can be planned either by the Karen Gaffney Foundation or by the students in "Friends First" in coordination with the Karen Gaffney Foundation.

Continuous Improvement: The Karen Gaffney Foundation will provide the structure to link "Friends First" programs in the different schools, and will meet with "Friends First" leaders on different campuses to help generate meeting agendas, locate guest speakers, and share best practices.

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