Learning empathy through helping others

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Posted: Friday, December 6, 2013 12:00 am

Sean Traster, Brad Pelham, Olivia Kilgarin and a number of their peers spend their Wednesdays making friends.

The trio visit Mosaic, an organization serving individuals with intellectual disabilities, and work with the organization’s clients as part of the Papillion-La Vista School District’s Health Systems Academy.

Students from both of the district’s high schools — Papillion-La Vista and Papillion-La Vista South — can attend the academy. They split their days between the academy and the regular high schools.

Academy students spend Wednesdays working on challenge-based learning.

Challenge-based learning takes students out of the classroom to sites like Mosaic. Other off-site learning locations include Papillion Manor, Hillcrest facilities and the Open Door Mission.

Mosaic provides individuals with services and support to help them develop job skills and independence. The services include day programs and residential assistance.

“We try to be individual based,” said Jan Blosser, Mosaic’s executive director.

Each year, Health Systems Academy students work on a “big idea,” said teacher Ron Fleming. This semester, the students chose empathy.

“The only way you can grow empathy is to grow it yourself,” Fleming said. “You can’t learn it in a classroom.”

Traster, 17, defined empathy as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

“The more you learn about people less fortunate than you, the more empathy you have and the more motivated you are to help others,” Fleming said.

Traster’s days at Mosaic vary depending on which clients he interacts with. Some like to draw and make art. Others just like talking.

“They’re always asking where we were when we’re not here,” Traster said. “And when they’re gone, we ask where they were. They like it. It just makes their day. It feels really good.”

Visiting Mosaic has been an opportunity that Traster has welcomed. He started participating in the program last year as a junior at Papillion-La Vista South.

“It’s a good experience getting out in the world,” he said.

Pelham, 16, has also enjoyed his time at Mosaic, whether keeping wheelchair-bound clients company or helping other clients make holiday decorations.

“With some of us, we haven’t had this experience with people who have disabilities,” Pelham said. “After hearing their stories, its given us a better understanding and made it more enjoyable.”

The majority of the people Mosaic’s clients interact with are either paid employees of the company or family members, Blosser said.

“They have little interaction with community members,” Blosser said. “For us, we are always trying to build community capacity.”

The interaction doesn’t just benefit the clients. It benefits academy students, too.

“It really comes back to the interaction with clients, employees and my friends,” Pelham said. “It’s a good experience for me.”

Clients and students connect after weeks of visits.

“They remember who you are. It just means a lot,” Traster said.

The students don’t have a set routine with Mosaic clients but Wednesdays can sometimes get off to a slow start, Pelham said.

“They all recognize us now,” Pelham said. “It’s not really a routine. It just kind of starts.”

In addition to teaching empathy, the program is designed to prepare students for health-related careers.

Traster, who wants to be a gastroenterologist, said learning about empathy has helped prepared him for medice.

“You could have a patient with disabilities,” Traster said. “You never know what your patient might feel like or where they come from.”

Fleming said he enjoys watching students in the program.

“It’s so cool to watch them shake hands and hug,” Fleming said. “To us, this whole program is about stepping away and them learning on their own.”

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