Six plump turkeys. Sixty pounds of creamy mashed potatoes. One hundred buttery rolls. A sprawling table filled with pumpkin pies, chocolate cakes and various cookies.
When the Interpersonal Skills class from Olathe East High School promised a mouth-watering Thanksgiving feast for their special education community, they meant it.
On Thursday afternoon, more than 100 people — including school administrators and special education staff from the district — showed up to the high school’s freshman gym to gobble down the homemade treats.
“I’ve been looking forward to this day, ever since I put it on my calendar,” said Bill Weber, principal of Olathe East. “The food was great and it was wonderful to see these kids do such hard work and then sit together to enjoy each other’s company.”
The class, which consists of 20 general education kids and 20 special education kids, spent a week preparing for the program’s second annual Thanksgiving dinner.
The general education students — called mentors — helped the special education students write letters and make phone calls to local businesses, asking for monetary donations for the dinner. They also helped them budget for grocery shopping trips and follow the recipes to make each dish.
“All of the kids really learned important problem-solving skills by having to brainstorm for this project,” said Valerie Gasser, the school’s speech pathologist. “It was a little eye-opening for them to see all the steps involved with making a Thanksgiving dinner. They quickly realized it doesn’t happen overnight, where you wake up and mom already has everything on the table.”
For the students, the fun outweighed the hard work.
Ola Trikhacheva, an 18-year-old special education senior, dedicated her time to peeling potatoes and cutting out feather decorations.
Preparing the dinner just made her look forward to Thanksgiving Day even more.
“I help my parents cook at home a lot, so helping to prepare the food was my favorite part,” she said. “I’m very excited to help them with Thanksgiving dinner now, because I’ll have all the skills.”
The professionalism shown by the students and the enthusiasm in the air didn’t go unnoticed.
David Schmale, who taught the Interpersonal Skills class at Olathe East for a decade before becoming a resource teacher, was thrilled by what he saw Thursday afternoon. The dinner epitomizes the entire reasoning behind the class, he pointed out: Students helping other students learn how to interact in the real world and feel comfortable in the community.
“It’s neat to see how all the kids really took ownership in the planning and everyone contributed to the party,” he said. “Learning social skills from peers means more to these special education students than getting this information from a teacher. Real friendships are formed in this class.”
His sentiment was echoed by Tiffany Blackburn, a mentor in the interpersonal skills class.
The 17-year-old from Overland Park sometimes hangs out with her special education friends from the class on weekends, to either grab lunch or catch a movie.
“Our class is very family-based because we’re all really close,” she said. “The special ed kids are really cool and they’re fun to be around and I love learning about each of them.”
Not only do the kids form bonds and learn from each other, but the class sometimes directs the mentors to unforeseen careers.
“I’ve had former mentors come back who tell me they’ve switched their major in college and are working with special education kids, because this class showed them their passion,” Schmale said. “It’s the best feeling any special education teacher could have. It makes me very proud.”
Blackburn is not sure if her future entails a career in special education, but she does know one thing — interacting with these kids has already changed her life.
“One day, if my kid requires special education, I’ll know what to do,” she said. “The most important thing I’ve learned is that it’s not really a disability, it’s a different ability, which is our motto. These kids aren’t different from us, they’re the same.”