The Executive Director of the nonprofit West L.A. Circle of Friends (CoF) and former Santa Monica High School (SAMOHI) Speech Pathologist, Barbara Palilis, was selected by fans through a national vote online as the winner to represent the Los Angeles Dodgers in the “All-Stars Among Us” campaign sponsored by People Magazine and Major League Baseball. She was honored along with the 29 other finalists during the pregame ceremony before the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star Game in St. Louis on July 14.
Palilis was one of 90 finalists narrowed from a field of thousands of nominees who were nominated because they have gone above and beyond to serve their communities. Each of the 30 finalists was chosen to represent one of the Major League Teams. She was nominated by Matt Rosenstein who had participated in the CoF program as a General Education student at SAMOHI.
CoF was created by Palilis to help bring a better understanding and acceptance of students with special needs to high school and college campuses through a structured program of inclusion. Special needs students and students without disabilities (General Education students) develop genuine friendships by sharing lunches on a daily basis and by practicing social skills. The program includes monthly events like bowling and also has a summer component. A parent at Lincoln Middle School originally conceived the idea for her special needs child. Palilis was asked to pick it up by SAMOHI’s Special Education Department after the Lincoln student came to the high school in 1999 and then it just grew and grew. During the 2008-2009 year over 400 students participated.
Students with special needs learn better conversational skills and nondisabled students learn students with disabilities have more in common with them than they ever thought possible. Palilis told the Mirror many General Education students eventually no longer see a special needs student as having a disability. Instead, they see them as having a different ability.
Palilis has brought the program to 21 school sites in California from San Diego to Stockton and a program is being developed for two sites in Oregon. Palilis’ believes “teenagers with disabilities are an under served population” and hopes to spread her program nationally. She and the other honorees will be writing a letter to President Barack Obama and his wife requesting to meet with them to encourage their administration to incorporate their ideas and programs into national policy.
The Program Manager for CoF, Tamra Mariott, in an interview with the Mirror stated, “The program can be life changing for the students who participate.” There have been cases where General Education students have chosen careers related to special needs students after participating in the program.
Penny Rothman whose daughter participated in the program at SAMOHI told the Mirror “I can’t imagine what life would have been like without it. It has made a huge difference in our lives.” She still volunteers with the program and speaks to incoming freshman about disability awareness.
More information can be found at circleofriends.org or by calling 310.312.6600.