Bradwell Institute sophomore Alyssa Vanderstow recalled the moment when the Friends Helping Friends club was recognized at the state Capitol during the General Assembly’s morning session in February.
"I was nervous when they were about to announce us. When they said our name, we stood up and everyone was looking at us and clapping for us," she said.
The students and club advisor Charlie Moon, who teaches special-education, were honored for their service to special needs students.
Friends Helping Friends connects special-ed students with their general-ed peers at Bradwell. General-ed students help special-needs students with their academics and motor skills, spend time in their classrooms, play outside and escort them to buses.
Students described the trip as "incredible" and were excited with anticipation the morning of the session.
They waited almost 30 minutes before being presented by Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, and observed the inner workings of the state legislature.
Students described watching pages run around, lobbyists talking to lawmakers, people working in corners and children in suits working as pages.
FHF was given a certificate from Georgia Secreatary of State Brian Kemp which read, "I, Brian Kemp…do hereby proclaim Friends Helping Friends as an Outstanding Georgia Organization. May this Outstanding Georgia Organization be afforded every courtesy as a Goodwill Ambassador from Georgia in its organization to other state, to nations beyond the borders of the United States of America, or wherever it may hereafter do business or reside."
BI junior Jordan Spires, who is interested in a career in politics said they were given "insight into what they do on a day-to-day basis."
"I maybe want to be a secretary of state or maybe at the federal level. It was neat seeing how people influence that things that happen here," Spires said. "It was good to see the in-flesh embodiments of the people we hear and talk about all the time."
Guindalyn Goss, BI junior, who was excited to see the inside of the state house, said she was not disappointed and it was more beautiful than expected.
Senior Charbriel Martinez had more of an appreciation for government and the different kinds of jobs involved in politics.
They met Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, Rep. Tommy Benton and Kemp, which stood out the most for Moon.
"The last thing that happened before we got on the bus they took us to the secretary of state’s office," Moon said. "He just popped out of his office before we walked out the door and spent like 15 minutes talking to us. That was one of those a-ha moments that Rep. Al Williams’ office really did give us behind-the-scenes access to a lot of things."
Students said the most important part of the trip was bringing awareness to programs like Friends Helping Friends and special needs students.
"I think the biggest thing is that it increased our coverage and made a lot of people aware about us and what we do," Spires said. "People were asking what we do and what we’re all about."
Martinez hoped other students will want to start a similar club at their school.
"These are the most social years of their (special needs students) lives, so they need to interact with people as much as they can and socialize," Martinez said. "And not just with the people that are paid to work with them. We’re the people that volunteer to be with them and they appreciate it."
Bradwell junior Tiffany Swinton’s favorite part of the trip was hanging out with Taylor Wasserman, a special needs student, and her mom and "just see her smile and interact with us."
FHF went sight-seeing in Atlanta and Wasserman’s favorite part of the trip was visiting the Georgia Aquarium.
Spires said joining FHF is a valuable experience.
"It’s so easy to just brush off special need students. It makes you realize they are people too and they deserve to have friends, he said. "Just because they have a learning disability doesn’t mean they should be segregated to themselves."
Vanderstow called it "a learning experience on both ends" and "you enjoy spending time with them."
Martinez said her time in FHF has made her more thankful and humble.
On March 10, FHF will host the Liberty County Special Needs Night of the Stars talent show at the Performing Arts Center. Tickets cost $8 at the door and will help raise funds for club events.
There will be a basketball 3-point shooting and dunk contest on March 24.