Special Needs Programs Bridge Students Together

Students get involved in programs with special needs students to support each other in difficult times


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Junior Danielle Thayer-Pham is the treasurer of HALO Dance for Autism club

Junior Danielle Thayer-Pham is the treasurer of HALO Dance for Autism, a club that raises awareness for autism through dance, working in close partnership with Warrior Nation. 

“I was informed about an exceptional program involving the school’s special education program, Warrior Nation, as my older sister was an active member of the Woodbridge HALO Club. Once I joined, I immediately knew that it was a place where I could grow as a person, leader and ally to the special needs community,” Thayer-Pham said. 

As a dancer on the Woodbridge High dance team, Thayer-Pham finds volunteering as a medium that combines her longtime love for dance with her passion to help those around her. 

“Since I have joined the club, I have been fortunate enough to have the same partner for every performance, Mark. He is an incredible individual who I have been able to get to know more personally; greeting each other with first pumps and high-fives. Seeing him excited to dance is something that I continually look forward to for every practice and performance,” Thayer-Pham said. 

Although quarantine has reduced club meetings, Thayer-Pham looks forward to meeting her friends virtually this year. 

“It’s the small moments like these that I am grateful for during these difficult times,” Thayer-Pham said. 

Junior Ashley Cheng is the president of Warrior Unified club (Photo Courtesy)

Junior Ashley Cheng is the president of Warrior Unified, a program promoting inclusion and acceptance of people with special needs through athletic activities. 

“Social interaction is a major challenge for kids with autism. It is really rewarding to see special needs students enjoy playing sports and engaging with each other and with typical peers. The joy on their faces when they make a basket or score a goal makes me really happy,” Cheng said. 

Cheng’s younger brother with autism motivates her to become involved in these programs through facilitating activities and modeling behavior in group behavioral therapy sessions. 

“I treat the special needs students the way I would want my brother to be treated. When my brother first went to school, I was very worried about him not making any friends. Now he has a few friends and I am very grateful for them. Not everyone is as lucky as my brother, so I try to be friends with as many special needs students as I can,” Cheng said. 

Cheng currently manages a website for Warrior Unified and plans to major in computer science in college to develop new technologies that help improve the lives of people with disabilities. 

“I am doing my part to help promote inclusion of special needs students through my club, and it is important for everyone else to help, too. People should avoid assumptions and try to understand and listen to special needs students. People should stop saying the r-word and actively make programs and activities more inclusive for people with special needs,” Cheng said. 

Senior Madelaine Leitman is the president of Warrior Nation club (Photo Courtesy )

Senior Madelaine Leitman is the president of Warrior Nation, a club dedicated to spreading awareness for autism and connecting students on campus with students with disabilities through programs and club meetings during lunch time. 

 “I began to build relationships with special education students in elementary school, through a program called “Best Buddies.” During my nearly lifelong experiences with forming these friendships, I believe that I am fit to now run Warrior Nation. I have become well-acquainted with the traditions of the club and the special education community at our school in my four years of involvement,” Leitman said. 

Growing up, Leitman witnessed family and friends struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety and depression, which motivates her to research more about neuroscience in hopes that whichever college she may attend, she will still be connected to this community. 

“I enjoy volunteering because of the moral satisfaction that it invokes. Many students with autism want to form friendships with others and feel connected to the rest of the school, yet are not given many opportunities to do so. I volunteer to give them that freedom, and most importantly, I yearn to see the smiles on their faces that I helped create. The happiness that they show whenever there’s a Warrior Nation event makes me want to never let them down,” Leitman said. 

Senior Riley Salter is the vice president of Warrior Nation club (Photo Courtesy)

Senior Riley Salter is the vice president of Warrior Nation. As a part of the board last year and this year, Salter cherishes the relationships she discovered through her volunteering. 

“Growing up, there was a boy with autism in my class in New Zealand and he had no friends and was being bullied by some kids in the class. So I started inviting him to hangout with me and my group and he became more social and we became good friends, and most of the bullying towards him stopped when people got to know him. That experience kind of sparked my love for including and spending time with students with [students with disabilities],” Salter said. 

Salter focuses on growing friendships between students with disabilities and the club members. 

“My favorite service project would probably be the prom with Warrior Nation. Sophomore year, a couple student volunteers and I went to prom with the seniors in Warrior Nation. We danced and all hung out. It was really fun, and it was really sweet to see the Warrior Nation Seniors so happy […],” Salter said.  

Salter will continue her volunteer work in college and plans to start her own programs for people with disabilities, focusing on art therapy.