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Options program marks 20th anniversary

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The Options program at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year. Since beginning in Fall 1998 as only the second Catholic high school in the United States to offer a program for students with intellectual disabilities, 75 students have gone through the program.

Peer mentors are a key ingredient to the program’s success. Mentors assist students in both special and general education classes. They assist with academic work, provide positive behavior support, facilitate inclusion, serve as advocates, and often form genuine friendships outside the classroom as well.

At least 1,500 students have served as peer mentors during the past 20 years. Additionally, three of the four current Options teachers are Paul VI graduates.

In anticipation of this special anniversary year, a few former mentors shared what they gained from their mentoring experience. For many, serving as a peer mentor helped them decide on a career path in special education or another helping career.

“Peer mentoring allowed me to get out of my comfort zone and realize how special our school is and how important inclusion for everyone is,” said 2018 graduate Bridget Fitzsimon. “Peer mentoring inspired me to pursue a major of special education. When I started peer mentoring and making friendships with the students in the Options program, I realized that working with people with intellectual disabilities is what I want to pursue in my life.”

“From my experience as a peer mentor, I knew that I wanted to work with people with disabilities in some way,” said Sarah Gardner, a 2007 graduate who now teaches in the Options program. “I considered nursing, physical and occupational therapy, and a few other fields, but ultimately decided on teaching. It was an easy choice to return to Paul VI and a program that I love.”

“Peer mentoring taught me skills such as critical thinking and how to better work with others. It showed me the joy of helping others and how I would enjoy a career in medicine or science,” said Quinn Adams.

“Helping with Options taught me how to work with people of varying abilities,” said 2018 graduate Sydney Mandrgoc. “In the future, I hope to become a nurse, and I think I will be able to be more understanding when working with patients in my future job.”

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Many felt that being a peer mentor enhanced their overall experience at Paul VI and helped them grow as a person.

“My time as a peer mentor made me a more patient person and a better friend to people, regardless of ability or disability,” said Erin McLaughlin.

Casey McLellan, who also returned to Paul VI as an Options teacher, has a personal connection to the program. Casey’s sister, Shannon, was a student in Options. She passed away in 2013 at the age of 28.

“Ultimately, it was the death of my sister that prompted me to return to Paul VI,” she said. “I knew that one day I would find a purpose in her loss with time and prayer. This led me to pursue my master’s in special education and return to teach in the Options Program. Since my return, my younger son has been diagnosed with a disability. While it was growing up with Shannon that prepared me for my career as a special education teacher, working in Options has helped better prepare me to be the mother of a child with a disability.

“At Paul VI, I have memories of seeing my sister included during the best years of her life. I am proud to be making memories as a teacher in Options all these years later. I am grateful that life has led me here to be a part of the Options legacy.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018