Five low-income families will experience the program at no cost, and the remaining monies will be used to fund program materials and field trip costs.
PeerBuddies, launched in July 2011, is a local organization that pairs individuals with special needs (Autism, Asperger Syndrome, Down Syndrome, or individuals who are simply “shy”) with typically developing and highly motivated peer buddies who teach them social skills in community-based settings. The program is supervised by Elika Shahrestani, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Parents of participants pay privately for the program, while peer buddies volunteer their time.
“We are thrilled to be able to provide this service for families who otherwise would not have this opportunity,” stated Elika Shahrestani, Executive Director.
Youth Making Change awards grants through a competitive application and review process. Stated Cristina Gonzalez, Program Manager of the Fund for Santa Barbara, “The YMC board members take the grant making process very seriously. They spend over sixty hours throughout the year outreaching, reviewing, granting, and conducting follow-ups. The board believes PeerBuddies serves a population that is important to recognize in our community.”
PeerBuddies was launched as a direct result of the need for play dates for children with special needs. PeerBuddies founder, Elika Shahrestani, noticed this recurring theme in her practice as a behavior analyst, and decided to do something about it. “The research highlights the importance of providing individuals with special needs opportunities to learn social skills from their peers. PeerBuddies does all the legwork for parents by setting up weekly play dates with buddy volunteers, and we train the buddies to teach the participants social skills in a seamless and fun way. What makes PeerBuddies work is that everyone involved benefits – from the participant to parents to volunteers – each person leaves the program having learned something essential.”
Retta Slay, a parent of a 15 year old with Down Syndrome, stated: “My son developed improved confidence along with basic skills to interact with peers of similar age, not only during his PeerBuddies session, but with school peers at lunch time and in the classroom.” Casey Venturelli, a 17 year old volunteer, stated: “PeerBuddies not only provides incomparable experience that anyone would carry with them for the rest of their lives, but also provides a gateway to other work in this field. I believe that every high school student should go through an experience like this one.”
PeerBuddies’ mission is to promote the importance of inclusion in the local community, with the hope that as more people become involved, this will naturally happen.