“I get by with a little help from my friends”  The Beatles

Remember high school? All the normal things you did with your friends. Things like going out for lunch, sneaking away to the convenience store for snacks, going to school dances and going on field trips. Our list of memories is unique to each of us. Melanie Steffan hadn’t been out of high school all that long when she returned to DHS to teach in the Special Education program. Coming back to her home high school she was reminded of all of those normal and fun things that she did with her friends. It didn’t take long for her to recognize these weren’t happening for her students. They were missing out on a huge aspect of high school life. She didn’t like it. She wanted her students to have normal high school experiences with their friends like she did. She didn’t want them to miss out on their high school experience.

Sometimes the catalyst for change begins by asking the simple question, “How can I change that”? Melanie saw her students needed to build skills to have those experiences and then sustain them throughout their adulthood. A Masters in Special Education with a thesis on transitioning to adulthood along with experience as a transition coordinator informed Dickinson High School’s confidence to hire Melanie to teach the Peer to Peer class. Melanie was allowed creative freedom as she and other special education teachers rolled out the program. As she tells it there was a lot to learn! She started by training with the folks at the Peer to Peer program at Century High School in Bismarck then adapted it to the needs at DHS. She worked with school Administration, her teaching team and parents to build trust as they adapted to try so many new normal experiences for her students. Melanie believes her students can do most anything; they just need practice to prepare and sometimes coaching on appropriate behavior.

What Melanie found was not only a pathway for her students, but also for the mentors. The Peer to Peer class provides a place of belonging for the mentors and the mentees. They are all part of something bigger, something special and unique, and something that helps them all grow as they work through the normal challenges of being a teenager. While she started the program to benefit her students, she found that the mentors grew in ways she had not anticipated. Being a mentor is an eye opening experience. Mentors develop skills of patience and responsibility in terms of care needed for some of the mentees. An example is recognizing anxiety in a mentee about going to new places and the mentor taking baby steps to make the mentee more comfortable. Both mentors and mentees learn about ways to approach situations or reword thoughts to make it make sense for someone, how to avoid trigger responses or how to recognize behavioral patterns. And, they learn what it means to be a true friend.

Melanie credits her parents for giving her a base where living side by side with people with disabilities is normal and she gravitated to them. In college she studied human rights in Norway for a summer and interned at an agency in Arizona where she took people with disabilities to the capital to advocate for their rights. Her commitment to creating equal opportunities for people with disabilities is evident! As she dreams about the possibilities for her students and the Peer to Peer class she listens to what the students want. She is committed to preparing them for their individual opportunities based on what they want to experience. Melanie, the special education teachers and mentors all pull together to make things happen. Melanie plans to travel to Washington DC next year with a student who wants to participate in Close Up. Another student starts a job next semester with the help of two mentors who will work side by side with them until they are ready to do the job on their own. The question in Melanie’s mind is not if we can do it but rather “how” can we do it.

I am so thankful for women like Melanie in our community. Women who see change is needed and make it happen. Women who see that life can be better and take the steps to lead us there.

Kudos is a program of the local nonprofit organization Women Empowering Women. The program recognizes the good works women do. These are women who’ve lived quietly, joyfully or creatively to influence our lives. They are an inspiration and deserve to be recognized for their efforts and impact. Women Empowering Women is dedicated to the collaboration of women to meet needs and helping women become the best versions of them self. To learn more see https://wewnetwork.org.