It’s a situation that can be fairly common at high schools across the country — students with special needs struggling to feel included in the social groups of their peers.

Working as a speech pathologist at Santa Monica High School, Barbara Palilis wanted to do something to change that.

Teenagers with disabilities such as autism and Down Syndrome are an underserved population with few services focusing on their specific age group, Palilis said. They can feel isolated and even ignored while attending high school, a time when most students are dealing with a variety of uncertainties.

Knowing that the lunch period is a key time for social connections at school, Palilis figured that it was a time when students facing different challenges could learn to interact with each other.

“I knew we had to work with these kids on their social skills, and I thought the best way was to pair them with their non-disabled peers,” said Palilis, who has lived in Mar Vista for 23 years and worked at Santa Monica High as a speech pathologist for 20 years.

She began the initiative called Circle of Friends in 1999 at the high school, where students with and without disabilities began having lunch, exchanging stories and gossip just like their fellow teens and hanging out through after-school activities.

The program aims to bring a better understanding and acceptance of differences through inclusion, she says. Circle of Friends started with a total of 12 students and has expanded to over 350 participants at Samohi alone, including 42 with special needs. Chapters have since been established at 21 schools in California.

“This is a social skills program of inclusion that changes lives at so many levels,” Palilis said. “We impact the campus climate through disability awareness and training. It tremendously changes the climate.”

Palilis has been recognized for her efforts to build friendships between disabled and non-disabled teens through a campaign sponsored by Major League Baseball and People magazine which named her an “All Star Among Us.” After she was chosen as one of 90 finalists among thousands of nominees who have gone “above and beyond” to serve their communities, Palilis was picked by voters as an “all star” for one of 30 Major League teams.

The representative for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Palilis, and the other finalists were honored during a pre-game ceremony Tuesday, July 14th at the 2009 Major League All Star Game in St. Louis, where President Barack Obama threw out the first pitch. Nearly 750,000 votes were cast by fans nationally in the All Stars Among Us campaign to choose the 30 award winners.

“We’re honored to have Barbara represent the Dodgers at the All Star Game,” said Dr. Charles Steinberg, executive vice president of the campaign’s Creative and Communications. “She does amazing work for disabled teens through Circle of Friends and has had a major impact on the people of Los Angeles. We are grateful that she is a fan of the Dodgers and we are proud that she is a member of our community.”

While Palilis said she was speechless at the award and was expecting the “experience of a lifetime” at the All Star Game, she noted that the recognition was primarily attributed to the students involved in Circle of Friends.

“I’m truly profoundly honored. But it’s not about me, it’s about the work that the kids do every day,” said Palilis, who was joined by some students at a Dodger Stadium ceremony. “For me it’s important to do this because it represents what we are about.”

Palilis was nominated as an all star by one of her Circle of Friends students, Matt Rosenstein, who was inspired by her work with the “life-changing program.”

“She was really genuinely committed to the organization. You can tell she does it because she really cares about the kids and cares about making an impact,” said Rosenstein, who recently graduated from Samohi and will attend UCLA in the fall.

“I’m really proud of Barb and glad she was picked as an All Star Among Us.”

Referring to the benefits of the organization, Rosenstein explained that one of the students with special needs that he became friends with was initially fearful of graduating high school, but now looks forward to attending college in a year.

“It’s been a moving experience for him,” Rosenstein said. “It’s really taught me that we’re all the same.”

Caelainn Coffman, administrative assistant for the year-round program, also praised Palilis’ commitment to the program, saying she has been able to form strong personal connections with the students involved.

“She understands the students on a deeper level,” said Coffman, who got involved with the program as a Samohi student. “She knows how to connect well with all different types of people.”

Santa Monica resident Viveca Cole has also seen the results of Circle of Friends through the impact it has made on her son, Emeka, who was diagnosed with high functioning autism. Prior to the program, Emeka would rarely receive phone calls from people other than family but now he has become quite social with other teens, his mother said.

“He loves it because his life is just like theirs,” Cole said. “It’s helped him become more independent and a lot more confident.”

Palilis noted that her program has improved the social skills of each of the students, teaching the students with special needs better communication skills and the general education youths leadership skills in addition to showing them that people are more alike than different. A key element of the organization is that the non-disabled students are trained on how to work with those with special needs, she said.

Most importantly, she says, the students do not perceive their relationships forming with disabled persons, but with friends.

“You often don’t know who is disabled and who isn’t and it’s a beautiful thing to see,” she said.

In addition to spreading the effort to other California schools, Palilis has partnered with a UCLA Extension program to offer Circle of Friends to college students. Her hope is to take the program to schools nationwide, showing others across the country how life can be changed through unexpected friendships.

“When one has the chance to see life change before your eyes there can be nothing more rewarding,” she said.

Information on Circle of Friends, www.circleofriends.org/, or (310) 312-6600.

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