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Most high school students know peers with special needs, but few are friends with them.

A group of high school students in Tulsa decided they would do something about this situation by designing an inclusion program they named MESH. These students had been selected to participate in the Youth Philanthropy Initiative (YPI) supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. YPI challenges high school students to adopt an issue or topic affecting teens. The students apply as freshmen and sophomores from Tulsa area high schools.

They then spend the next three years working on their project in groups which are called “cohorts”. The first cohort started in 2005 and addressed teen depression. In following years, cohorts have chosen dating violence, counteracting media portrayals of beauty, and the importance of volunteerism. Cohort 7 decided to tackle the existing situation regarding students with special needs.

They were especially interested in creating inclusive social environments at school which would facilitate integrating students with special needs into the general education population. The program was piloted at Union Public Schools and is now operating at Union and Memorial High Schools. The goals of MESH are to foster a better school environment and to improve the quality of the relationships between students with special needs and their peers. The primary objectives are to create an inclusive social environment for students with special needs in the larger student body, as well as educate the student body about students with special needs.

YPI selected TARC to continue the program and a new position, Student Inclusion Coordinator, was added at TARC to provide assistance to MESH participants as well as other efforts to encourage inclusion of students with special needs in other school activities and programs. Amy Smith was hired to fill this position and brings with her specialized educational and work-related experience from The Little Light House and a Master’s Degree in Education and Life-Long Learning.   cohort-7-final-retreat

For schools to better understand their own environment, each school creates a steering committee, takes a school evaluation, and then identifies which parts of the MESH framework will work best for them. These relationships are not only important for students with special needs, but for students in general education as well. To cultivate these friendships, students are encouraged to join MESH.

For more information about the MESH program, contact Amy at 918-582-TARC (8272) or email her at asmith@ddadvocacy.net. Information is also available at www.meshtogether.org.