Oyster Bay High School’s Terrance Cameron began a program called Friday Friends with the help of his father Rich and friend Mitchell Hensley, who is a junior at Chaminade High School. The program offers a night of games, basketball and music to special needs kids for two hours on the first Friday of each month at St. Dominic’s chapel.
“I was working with special needs kids for a lot of my life before this,” said Cameron. “We had programs in Vernon Middle School and High School to work with them after school and my lacrosse coach would have basketball games with special needs kids.”
During the basketball games, the parents would always ask when the next game would be, the 11th-grader said. The lacrosse coach would only hold three of the basketball games per season and the parents would appear disappointed. Wanting to hold more basketball games and provide fun nights for the special needs kids, Cameron decided to start Friday Friends.
“First, we went to a respite program of another community to better understand the structure of how to successfully and efficiently run a respite program,” said Hensley. “The volunteers at this respite program were very helpful in explaining ways to keep all the children happy as well as safe.”
“We had to go to St. Dom’s to see if we could get a place to host it and they decided to fund us,” said Cameron. “No one was expecting that, honestly. I asked a few kids at school to volunteer for an after-school program and my dad used Facebook to get the word out. We were able to talk to the special education teachers at the school to get it started.”
Friday Friends takes place in the basement of the St. Dominic’s chapel from 6 to 8 p.m. on the first Friday of each month. Kids come to play basketball, do arts and crafts, play board games and listen to music. In December, they held a special event in which the fire department came and one of the firefighters dressed up as Santa Claus.
“It’s on a one-to-one basis between the friends and their buddies,” said Cameron. “It blurs the lines between who is special needs and who’s just hanging out with them. It gives the kids something to do on Friday and it gives the parents a night out, which they don’t get often.”
Kristin Lopes, a special education teacher at Hampton Street School in Mineola, creates the one-to-one pairings between the teens in the program, ensuring that there is a clear understanding of the participants’ needs. While Lopes communicates the needs of the children and their parents, there is a nurse who volunteers in case there are any medical issues.
“It warms my heart each month to witness the happiness on the faces of all of the kids in our community,” said Lopes. “It has been a powerful experience, one which I hope will stay in this community for years to come.”
With having only started the program a few months ago, Cameron says his turnout has been amazing. There have been 20 kids with special needs coming each week. There is already a waitlist for volunteers because the chapel can only hold a limited amount of people. Many of the volunteers had previously worked with Cameron in the middle and high school programs as well.
“We’ve been trying to spread throughout different parishes and start new sessions so it’s not only in St. Dom’s,” said Cameron. “I always want to stay involved in some way. It feels great because these kids are so happy and the parents always come back looking relieved. It’s a really amazing experience.”
For more information or to volunteer, email Terrance Cameron firstname.lastname@example.org.