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By Deana Carpenter

For The Almanac

Students of all different abilities and skill levels are being brought together by one South Fayette High School organization. South Fayette High School’s Circle of Friends club has been going strong for nearly 20 years and boasts about 30 members.

South Fayette’s Circle of Friends was started by South Fayette High School paraeducator Helen Cardillo during her second year of working at the school.

The group connects students who have special needs with those who don’t. They get together after school to play games, make crafts, have food, go to movies and sometimes just hang out together. The group has an annual Mardi Gras dance and many also participate in the annual Down Syndrome Dash.

“I had heard about a different Circle of Friends in Canada,” Cardillo said. She said that club was created to help a young girl who had special needs. At the time the club was started, there was no type of inclusion club at the high school. Cardillo said that there was a club at the elementary school that her daughter, Tara, who has special needs, would go to that met once a month.

Cardillo said to think of the people in one’s life as being in a circle – the people closest to you are in the inner circle, like parents and siblings. The next circle contains close friends, and then the next circle contains the clubs one belongs to and the last, or outer circle, contains those that are paid to be in one’s life, like teachers and counselors. Cardillo learned that most kids with special needs only have people in the innermost circle and outermost circle and are missing those peer activities and best friends that most high school students have.

She said after an assembly about Circle of Friends was presented at the school many years ago where the students had to draw their own circles, a football player was touched by one young man’s circle because he only had his family and people that were paid to be in his life in his circles.

Cardillo said the football player was “too cool” to join Circle of Friends, but instead he took the young man with special needs under his wing. The two became friends and the young man sat with the football players at lunch. Cardillo said the young man liked books and the football player liked girls, so the two of them would go to the bookstore and look at books and then go to the food court in the mall to get pizza and look at girls. Cardillo said that it turned out the young man with special needs had his best year ever during his senior year of high school, and the young man’s family was so impressed that his mother started a scholarship fund for the club.

One of the biggest things Circle of Friends does during the year is its annual Penny Challenge to raise money for organizations that help kids with special needs. This year Circle of Friends raised the most money they’ve ever raised – $13,640. Jars are placed in every classroom on the South Fayette School District campus. It’s not only pennies that are raised, but often checks and larger dollar amounts. The winning rooms in each building got to go bowling for the day.

“We take it all,” Cardillo joked. She said some students ask their parents’ employers to match funds, for which she is grateful. The money raised this year went to several different organizations, including T.C. House, The Woodlands, Special Olympics, The Autism Center of Pittsburgh, PA Connecting Communities, The Down Syndrome Center and the life skills classes in the elementary and middle schools. In the 19 years of the penny challenge, Circle of Friends has raised $138,000.

This year, Cardillo was named South Fayette School District’s Shining Star for all the volunteer work she has done.

Some of the money raised from the penny challenge is put aside for the group’s annual Mardi Gras Dance, which is the highlight of the year for many of the students in Circle of Friends. Special needs students from every high school in Allegheny County are invited to the dance held at South Fayette each year.

Alexandra Brazelton, a Circle of Friends member, said she loves the dance. “My favorite part is the dancing and the food.” Member Bridget Rosati agreed that she liked the food the best. Bridget also liked that she won an autographed Justin Beiber picture at this year’s dance.

As for other things they enjoy doing as members of Circle of Friends, Ray Harmuth said he liked playing waffle ball, even though he didn’t think he would at first. “Some sports are surprisingly fun,” he said.

“I’ve learned how to socialize a bit,” Harmuth said. “It’s kind of a big challenge, but you need to learn how to socialize if you’re going to have friends.”

Anu Guntaga said she likes doing the crafts the best, and Joey Blum said he likes going to movies.

“It’s a great way to meet new people and create a lot of great relationships,” said member Jessie Hannah. She added that one of the main reasons she likes coming to school every day are “teachers like that [Cardillo and also paraeducator Christine Magdich] who care so much.” Hannah added, “I admire how dedicated Mrs. Cardillo is, especially with the dance.”

Magdich said this is her first year working in the high school and she was approached to help out with Circle of Friends. “It’s a special place,” she said of the club. She said when she sees how all of the students interact and have a good time, “It’s heartwarming for me to see that.”

Kaelyn Brazelton said she likes being in the club because “you better your people skills,” and she said being in the club has taught her “patience and understanding.”

“It makes you more understanding,” said member Rachel McKinney. “You’re not afraid to socialize with them.”

“It also makes you more sensitive,” said Kourtney Aweidah.

“I love working with the kids,” Cardillo said. “They’re so accepting. They don’t see color, disabilities or designer clothes. They just like you for who you are.” She added that she’s had former members of Circle of Friends go on to college to get degrees in special education or some type of therapy, and many students return yearly to help out with Circle of Friends events like the Down Syndrome Dash.

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