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A Student Body's Stewardship: PALs program fosters relationships at Falls City Public

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By Tyler Dahlgren

NCSA Communications Specialist

There was a kickball game in Falls City’s famous Jug Brown Stadium Wednesday morning.

And to the casual passerby, it looked like just that.

A rather large group of high school students, far more than the regulatory 10 per side, taking a 30-minute reprieve from the classroom to have some fun under an usually strong autumn sun.

On the sideline, Katy Gifford plays the part of umpire and coach, keeping the two teams in order and the action moving along. Gifford is in her eighth year at Falls City High School, where she serves as the school’s Lifeskills director, focusing on students with disabilities.

“Remember, sometimes errors are cool!” she shouts.

Eight years ago, Gifford’s Lifeskills classroom was in one of the town’s two elementary schools, her students separated by blocks from their regular education classmates. There was some interaction between the two, but there was certainly room for more.

Gifford developed Peers Always Learning, with the appropriate acronym “PALs”, a program she hoped would teach her Lifeskills students social skills while providing them opportunities to interact socially with peers.

Those were Gifford’s initial hopes. What transpired over the next seven years surpassed Gifford’s highest aspiration.

“When I first started here, I thought that the middle school must do a phenomenal job of getting these students to socialize with Lifeskills students,” she said. “What I’ve learned, the longer I’m here, is that it starts from the get-go with kindergarten and preschool even.”

If Gifford had to use one word, she would describe Falls City’s culture as caring. She’s seen it first hand in the way the student body embraces her Lifeskills students. PALs took extensive planning and careful organization early on, a job that fell to Gifford.

“She came with the ideas and from there it was easy to facilitate from our standpoint,” said Gale Dunkhas, who is in his 11th year as principal of FCHS and 30th in education altogether. “The program just kind of absorbed into our culture and now it’s just something we do. It’s a part of who we are.”

The transition to the high school building has been wonderful, Dunkhas said. With everyone on one campus, PALs has only grown stronger.

“Now that we are all together, I think it’s an even better program, partly because we can do the volunteering during study halls,” Gifford said. “Sometimes they work on academic things, but a lot of the time it’s just reading a book to someone or playing games together.”

Junior Josie Crofford, a PALs mentor since her freshman year, laughs. She can attest to that.

“I played a lot of “Spoons” last year,” Crofford says, placing a heavy emphasis on the words “a lot” before allowing the smile to return to her face. “Never did I win.”

If you would have asked Crofford three years ago what she’d like to do with the rest of her life, “zoologist or zookeeper” is the answer you’d have gotten. On Valentine’s Day in eighth-grade, “Circle of Friends” (a program similar to PALs at the middle school level) handed out roses. Crofford wasn’t involved in the group, but she did receive a rose.

“It touched my heart. I cried that day,” Crofford said. “From then on, I have taken a passion in wanting to be involved. When they told us about it my freshman year, I signed up and it’s been an amazing experience since. I love it.”

Her new dream job?

“Now I’m looking into going to school to be a special education leader,” Crofford says proudly.

The activities are simple, but never small. Not to PALs mentors, and certainly not to Lifeskills students. A couple years ago, the kids in PALs made thermal blankets for pediatric patients at the town’s Community Medical Center.

“The hospital asked, ‘If we could get more funding, could you make us more blankets?’” Gifford recalls.

And so it goes in Falls City. The school matters to the community. And the community matters to the school. Nearly all of Gifford’s students work in the community throughout the week.

“We have had different places actually call and say ‘Hey, I’m looking for someone to hire. Do you have a student that can this type of work or that kind of work?’” Gifford said. “We’ve gone to our bowling alley a couple of times and also have a Special Olympics team, and they are always more than happy to have us come out and to work with us.”

The community of Falls City is caring, which shows through the kids in their school system. Especially the ones on this particular Wednesday morning, lending a helping hand around the bases and in the field to their mentees, and, more specifically, their friends.

“They are fighting the fight of rural Nebraska communities and trying to make Falls City a great place for families, and I think that’s what’s keeping our enrollment so stable,” Dunkhas said of his town, also pointing out renovations to the school in 2001 and additions to the community such as the new waterpark and ballfield upgrades. “It’s a great place to live, and we’ve got a good school system and a good infrastructure. I’m proud of what Falls City does for the people who live here and the kids in our community.”

As in any small town, people in Falls City tend to look out for one another. It’s no different at Falls City High School.

“I think this PALs program, thanks to Mrs. Gifford, is probably the strongest transitional program that I’ve been a part of in my 30 years in education,” said Dunkhas. “These are some of our most protected kids by all of our students, because they love them and they know them and they treat them all with respect.”

Gifford couldn’t do it all on her own. Admittedly, she couldn’t even come close. Four paraeducators, including Lyle Wissmann, playing the role of pitcher on Wednesday, “make the world go ‘round”, says Gifford.

“We have to be a team,” she said. “I trust them. If I am gone for a day, whether I’m sick or out of town, the substitute comes in and, more often than not, they’ll leave a note saying ‘Your paras are the best!’.”

Wissmann has been in the district for seven years working as a para, coach and substitute teacher. He sees the life-altering effects the PALs program has on Lifeskills students, and regular education students, every day.

“The friendships that are developed in the program will last a lifetime,” Wissmann said before offering praise for Gifford. “She is so passionate and caring towards her students. She is firm and caring at the same time. We laugh, sometimes we cry, and we try to develop each one of our students into incredible young men and women.”

In a small town, one where everybody knows everybody, it is easier to become involved than to sit idly by.

“My favorite part of being involved with the PALs program is taking time out of my day to be here having fun with kids who maybe go home and don’t get to do a lot of the things that we do here,” Crofford said. “It’s just great, knowing they are willing to stand there with us or that they want us to be around and are so open to us.”

Gifford’s job tends to lend itself to isolation at times.

“There are times where I feel like I’m off in my own little corner,” she said. “No one else teaches what I do, not at the various levels anyways, so it can be kind of isolating. At the same time, I know all I have to do is ask for help and anyone across the district would step up and help me.”

What Gifford feels is a unique comfort that comes only through caring.

“I think that because of the way our teachers, pre-K through 12th-grade, expect that our students are going to be kind and respectful towards one another, whether it’s a special education student or not, it happens,” Gifford said. “The kids step up to bat, or kick in this situation, and they meet the expectations.”

Simply watching from the sideline, this casual passerby couldn’t help but to feel a sense of that comfort and pride. Pride in Nebraska’s public schools and the future they’re building.

There was a kickball game in Falls City Wednesday morning.

And it was so much more than that.