BLOOM: Youth mentoring peers with disabilities

Through their participation in “BLOOM Where You’re Planted,” teen mentors develop relationships with individuals who have disabilities after a summer of hands-on learning.

BLOOM youth working on a pinecone owl craft.Integrating individuals with disabilities into your local 4-H program is a win-win situation. Many organizations develop programs for individuals with disabilities so they can be involved in the community. The Michigan State University (MSU) Extension 4-H program in Lenawee County took it a step further and developed a mentoring program where individuals without disabilities would serve as mentors and grow in their own development.

The program, called “BLOOM Where You’re Planted” (BLOOM), is a marriage between individuals with disabilities and able-bodied youth. It is where non-traditional combinations and creative possibilities exist in a positive and enthusiastic situation. This marriage has been strong, long lasting and rewarding for all participants.

BLOOM is a youth education project originated to integrate able-bodied youth with non-able-bodied youth through horticultural therapy and education programs. The program is designed for teens to serve as mentors to fellow youth through hands‑on, environmental, educational programs. The mentors work one-on-one to help their mentees complete a project.

The original concept of BLOOM was to provide programming for individuals with disabilities through the MSU Extension Lenawee County 4-H Youth Development programs. The outcome was growth and development in individuals without disabilities in their relationship with their mentees.

MSU Extension Lenawee 4-H program surveyed the teen mentors who have been involved in the BLOOM program in order to determine the impact of youth mentors establishing relationships with youth who have disabilities during its formative years.

The results the survey showed that 84 percent of survey respondents volunteered in the program for two or more years. This would suggest a very high rate of return for youth volunteers in the programs. One respondent said, “BLOOM was my favorite thing I ever did in 4-H.”

After volunteering with BLOOM programs, 97 percent of the respondents said they were comfortable or very comfortable interacting with individuals with disabilities. This reflects a 33 percent increase from the participants stating they were originally uncomfortable interacting with individuals with disabilities. All respondents agreed that volunteering in these programs increased their awareness of people with disabilities, their sensitivity toward them, their understanding of challenges faced by individuals with disabilities and their empathy towards them.

One respondent wrote, “It’s showed me that even though some of the kids can’t communicate with words, they have other ways of communicating. I realized how much they can communicate even if they don’t have verbal skills.” Another said, “I became much more comfortable with disabled people. After working with them I understood them better.”

With a majority of the respondents volunteering in the program for two or more years, the survey also showed that more than half of the respondents have continued to work or interact with individuals with disabilities; 35 percent have maintained relationships with individuals in the program.

One volunteer said, “All of my life I was always interested in spending time with children who had disabilities. This was my first opportunity to get started.”

Another wrote, “I have always been interested in helping people with disabilities. After the program I became very interested. It was not until college when I realized I could pursue a job in designing activities for people with disabilities. I am currently majoring in Recreational Therapy with a minor in Therapeutic Art. Being involved in BLOOM helped me increase my knowledge by working with individuals with disabilities and made me realize this is the perfect major for me.”

Another respondent said, “I’ve taught in a special education classroom and really, really enjoyed myself. I wasn’t intimidated or stand offish because I was comfortable with them. I think it made a big difference.”

Plants need strong roots, good soil, water, sunshine and a lot of tender loving care in order to grow, blossom and to be beautiful from the inside out. These same ingredients are needed by each and every individual, with or without disabilities. The BLOOM Where You’re Planted program offers these essential ingredients.

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