KEARNEY — Most days during lunch, Kearney High sophomore Kolby Richards can be found sitting with friends he’s made through the CatPals program.
“I’d say most of my friend group is from CatPals, and that’s how I originally met them,” Kolby said.
Though under a different name, CatPals is the KHS version of Circle of Friends, and it seems to be forming friendships just as it’s intended to.
Kolby volunteered last year to be a mentor for the club, which helps students with disorders like autism at Kearney High learn social skills and connect with peers they otherwise might not meet.
Once a week after school, about 20 students get together for an activity like playing the Wii or just talking with others.
“Basically, we set up that social interaction so that we can watch it and see if something happens that we can fix,” said special education teacher Joee Muhlbach. “But just put it in that fun, game way.”
Since many of the mentees in the club have disorders that affect the way they socialize, it’s helpful for them to be able to learn what’s socially appropriate — and what’s not — in a safe environment.
“I think a lot of people struggle with (social interactions),” said freshman Karly Crooker, a mentor and assistant to Muhlbach for the club. “I have struggled with it in the past, I think a lot of other people have. We’re also trying to make it in a fun way so it’s not intimidating, it’s way more fun than intimidating.”
Muhlbach explained that some of her students sometimes don’t think about how their behaviors can affect other people or make them feel a certain way. So, if something happens during the club’s weekly meeting, the pals, or mentors, can talk about why a certain behavior might not be the best choice.
If there’s a social faux pas that’s committed, the CatPals meeting is a safe place to address it.
“You’re going to have to learn those social norms,” Muhlbach said of her students. “And that’s why we’re here.”
Muhlbach says that rather than approaching it from a standpoint of “you’re wrong,” mentors find a way to talk about how that comment or action made someone else feel, and so if you want to maintain a relationship with someone, it’s better to do something different.
And she says that the mentees listen to their peers’ advice.
“Students typically listen to other students more than they are going to listen to a teacher,” Muhlbach said. “When it comes from a peer, they’re more likely to listen to it.”
The “lessons” tend to be informal. The club is more about setting up a place for social interaction to happen.
Recently, the group went through introductions. In that meeting, the group talked about how to make eye contact, shake hands and tell someone a little bit about yourself.
While this is good practice for meeting anyone in life, Muhlbach said, it’s also something any of the students, mentor or mentee, will have to do someday, and it’s especially important to do well when meeting a potential employer in a job interview.
To continue receiving grant money from Circle of Friends, which pays for materials, snacks and activities, CatPals has to host these weekly meetings and a monthly outing.
In the past, the group has attended Kearney High sporting events together, seen the Harlem Globetrotters and celebrated with an end-of-the-year picnic, according to Betty Hatfield, who was the teacher-sponsor for the club until this year at KHS.
While Muhlbach says both mentors and mentees can benefit from exercises like practicing introductions, the mentors walk away having gained other life skills.
“I’ve learned patience,” Kolby said. “I have never been a patient person and always want to do something at all times, and through this I’ve learned how to slow down, keep pace.”
Hatfield said she’s seen both mentors and mentees become leaders.
“Some of the students, they’re learning leadership skills as they are helping others,” Hatfield said. “And some that don’t think they have leadership skills are exhibiting leadership skills by having positive mentors.”
Though she’s moved from Kearney High to the district’s transition program, which helps students age 18-21 who have graduated from Kearney Public Schools adjust to adult life, Hatfield brought some of the elements from CatPals with her.
To continue to help her older students improve social skills, Hatfield brings in other young adults, many of them former CatPals mentors, to spend time with students in the transition program.
On Fridays, Hatfield invites the volunteers to stop by the program for a coffee club where everyone can have some hot chocolate or a coffee and socialize.
“I think that all students can benefit from being around peers with good social skills,” Hatfield said.
Kolby said he’s seen the benefits the club can have on students just from last year.
“One of my best friends, he isn’t the best in social situations, so he just breaks down, and through this he’s found a way to cope with it and get used to social interactions. So it’s made a huge impact on his life,” Kolby said.
Because it’s so beneficial, Karly and Kolby have been encouraging more people to get involved.
“I say it’s a really good after-school activity,” Karly said. “ I think that we’re going to have a really fun year with it. I think it’s going to impact a lot of us.”