As Teen Librarians, we are always striving to provide interesting and relevant programming for our teen patrons. One type of programming that is always in demand is community service: our teens always seem to need it, and never have enough.
But how can our community service opportunities give our teens a truly meaningful experience that impacts their own lives and the lives of those in the community?
A large but often under-served population in our libraries is the special needs community. After listening to her community, Christa Lucarelli, the Assistant Director and head of Youth Services at the Farmingdale Public Library, developed the Triple P Program for children with special needs and teens looking for community service.
What is the Triple P Program?
The Triple P Program stands for “Peer Pal Program.” It is held every Monday at 7:00-8:00 p.m. during the school year, and is designed to match children with special needs (ranging in ages from 5 – 21) with neurotypical teen buddies (in grades 6-12).
The matching process is not an exact science, but it’s not random either: teens and children with special needs are matched together based on grade, gender, and/or interests. While they put a lot of thought into each pair, not every match is perfect, so sometimes pairs must be changed. However, generally, kids meet with the same teen buddy each week.
This is the 3rd year of the Triple P Program, and they currently have 39 kids with special needs and 55 typical teen volunteers signed up.
How is the Triple P Program Run?
The activities for the Triple P Program vary from week to week, and are planned in advance. The entire year’s schedule is available to parents and posted online. Christa, her co-worker Victoria, and three pages are typically present for each session. Christa stressed that having two librarians in the room is important because of the amount of kids that attend each week. Pages are on hand to watch the doors while Christa spends the hour circling the room to make sure everything’s running smoothly.
What Kind of Activities Are There Each Week?
The magic of the Triple P Program is that each week is different, with a new activity going on, but there is never any pressure to do the scheduled activity. The program takes place in a large room that is divided into two sections: one for the scheduled activity, and one dedicated to other activities.
If kids are not interested in a week’s event, or are feeling overly stimulated, a cart of board games, a cart of books, and a cart of crafts are always on hand in the other section of the room as alternative options. Kids are also welcome to bring in their own board games as well.
The goal has been to choose activities that have a wide appeal because they are dealing with a large age range. While challenging, it has been successful.
Activities have included:
- Ice breaker games for the first two weeks of the year to get to know each other
- Art therapy
- A Halloween party (at which they played a game, did a “mummy wrap” in toilet paper, and watched a movie at the end)
- “Physical Fun” – (a gym teacher in the district comes in and the kids play with scooters, a parachute, castle ball, and have relay races)
- Ceramics painting
- A holiday party
- A magic show
- The Harlem Wizards
- Tae kwon do
- Soccer Stars
- Radio Bingo (playing bingo to songs)
- Carnival games
- Movie nights
- Jason from Green Meadow Farm for a pet show
- The “Daler Dance” (a mini-prom, because many of the kids may not get the opportunity to go to prom)
Also, at the end of the year, they hold a party for the kids, teens, and the parents of the kids and teens.
The magic of the Triple P Program is that each week is different
This program is not just about providing consistent and excellent programming for children with special needs, it’s also about giving teens a wonderful opportunity to earn community service credit. Christa feared that she would never see teens again after they completed their required hours, but she was pleasantly surprised. Teens kept coming back, even during school breaks and on nights when their buddies didn’t attend.
It wasn’t just about earning community service hours for the teens: it was about spending meaningful time with their buddies.
How Do the Teens Participate?
The teens meet with their assigned buddy and help them during each week’s activity. Beyond that though, and perhaps even more importantly, the teens are there to be their buddy’s friend. When a child isn’t interested in the activity or just needs some quiet time, their teen buddy is there to just hang out and talk. Many teens will even carry their friendship over to school and exchange phone numbers so they can text each other after class.
Christa found that the teens kept coming back, but even better, she reports a 100% activity participation rate among the teens. Because of the constantly changing nature of the program, and the fact that there’s always something to do besides the weekly activities, nobody is ever bored.
In school the teens naturally gravitate toward insular groups, but on Monday nights at the library, they’re all part of the Triple P Family according to Christa. From day one it’s made clear to the teens that they are entering a “no judgment zone” toward their buddies and their peers. Christa said that the program “allows them the chance to be themselves,” and that they are able to let loose in a way they might not at school.
The teens are there to be their buddy’s friend
How Were Teens Recruited and Trained?
When the program was started three years ago, the first teens were recruited by reaching out to the Farmingdale “Moms” Facebook group. Many of those original teens continue to participate in the program, and they get first preference when registering.
There is a mandatory training session for teens every year, even those teens who have participated before. In the past two years they’ve done Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Training with the teens, but this year they decided to do the training themselves.
The training session is an hour long and held the Monday before they start. The rules are reviewed and the teens are reminded that every kid is different and that they’re attending the program to make friends. The teens are instructed to treat the kids as their peers and to not talk down to them. The teens are also reminded to not get offended: sometimes kids say and do things that they don’t really mean.
They’re all part of the Triple P Family.
Besides the required paperwork that needs to be filled out (which includes photo and video releases), teens who have done the program before also talk about their experience, what they’ve enjoyed about the program, and why they came back to do it again.
How is the Triple P Program Advertised?
Librarians who see that the Triple P Program has attracted a total of nearly 95 participants are probably wondering how Christa achieved that fantastic number. Beyond advertising in their newsletter, updating their Facebook page, and reaching out to the “Moms” group on Facebook, much of the advertising was more informal.
Christa has been running special needs programming at Farmingdale for 14 years, so she has gotten to know many of the parents with kids with special needs in and around the community. She also knew many of the teens from library programs as well, so spreading the word was more personal than just simply passing around flyers.
While Christa finds it difficult to say no to anyone who wants to participate, she says that she may have to cap the program at 100 participants because of space restrictions.
Advice for Librarians & Final Thoughts
The Triple P Program has been a labor of love for Christa. She advises that librarians need to be dedicated and prepared for the amount of work that necessarily must go into a program series like the Triple P Program. A certain amount of chaos is to be expected, and it can be overwhelming, she admits, but it’s more than worth the work.
Scheduling the activities, while very involved, is the easy part according to Christa. Matching the kids and teens is the tough part because it’s not always a simple formula to see who will click and who will clash.
Next year Christa is planning to have new kids and teens go through more formal screenings to aid in the pairing process. Christa advises trying to match kids especially by grade level when possible because then they’d be more likely to see each other beyond the library walls. Her greatest success stories involve buddies who meet outside of Triple P.
The Triple P Program has been a labor of love.
Librarians who run a program like this must be comfortable with constant tweaking. Scheduling the activities for a year and pairing kids and teens together is great, but not everything is going to work out perfectly. Activities will need to be changed and pairs will need to be switched: it’s part of working with people, after all.
For librarians who are starting from scratch, Christa suggests listening to what parents want. The parents in her community wanted a consistent buddy program, and it worked out wonderfully, but the parents in other communities may be looking for something different. However, Christa cautions that many parents may find it more difficult to commit to sporadic programming as opposed to a more consistent program series.
Her greatest success stories involve buddies who meet outside of Triple P.
Speaking of parents, it’s worth noting that while the Triple P Program undeniably benefits teens and kids with special needs, it also gives parents the rare opportunity to socialize and network with other parents. They are not asked to stay in the room while the program is going on, so they have the chance to sit outside and chat. Christa points out that there are just not enough free programs out there for children with special needs. The Triple P Program has made parents feel supported and welcomed at the library.
Christa would love to see other libraries take on the challenge of creating a program series for children with special needs and their teen buddies. It is time-consuming but, in Christa’s words, “if you can make a difference in one child’s life, it’s worth it.”
If you have questions for Christa, she can be reached at the Farmingdale Public Library at 516-249-9090 ext. 226.
The NCLA YASD would like to thank Christa Lucarelli for spending nearly an hour talking about her amazing and inspiring Triple P Program. We hope that librarians find the information useful should they wish to build a similar program in their libraries. – Lisa Zuena, Massapequa Public Library.