Who We Are
PeerPals.org matches preschool age children with disabilities with typically developing children in their communities for one on one play dates. We also hold group play dates facilitated by special education professionals. The friendships formed serve as the building blocks for inclusive communities when the children enter kindergarten together. PeerPals.org is a 501(c)(3) public charity that charges nothing to any of its participants. We rely solely on donations to keep the program running.
Our Board of Directors and Key Staff
Cathy Welsh, President: Cathy Welsh graduated from Nassau Community College with an A.A. in Business Administration. After fifteen years in the travel industry she left to raise four children. Cathy is very active in her community.
Nancy Lippman, M.D., Treasurer: Dr. Nancy Lippman is local pediatrician. After graduating from Smith College and Mt. Sinai Medical School, Dr. Lippman did her pediatric residency at New York Hospital, and then studied adolescent medicine an additional two years at Mt. Sinai Hospital. Dr. Lippman is the mother of three children.
Richard Cameron: Rich Cameron is the founder and President of Carson Optical, Inc of Ronkonkoma NY. Carson is a consumer optics company, and they are the leading US distributor of magnifiers. Cameron graduated in 1984 from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Finance. He is the father of two children.
Gloria Krasinski: Gloria Krasinski graduated from NYIT with a B.F.A. She worked in the fashion industry at Yves Saint Laurant. Currently she is the Vice President of Bertworks Construction Company, Inc. Gloria has three children, one of whom has physical challenges.
Julie Keffer, M.Ed., Executive Director: Julie Keffer graduated from Villanova University with a B.A. in Psychology and from George Mason University with a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction. She taught middle school for six years before leaving to raise three children with special needs. Julie founded PeerPals.org in 2008 and became Executive Director in 2012.
Why We Started
When a baby is born and you ask the new parents what they want for their child, the most popular answer is health and happiness. For most people happiness is having friends and being part of a community. Believe it or not the lack of social opportunities for kids with disabilities starts even before preschool. Many kids with special needs begin therapies as early as 18 months old. These essential services often preclude a mom from joining a mommy and me or even going to the playground. When it is time for preschool, many children with special needs attend school in a segregated setting. When they start kindergarten they don’t know any of the other kids and the other kids don’t know them. Because of their disability they may look or act differently from the other kids in their class and this is a huge obstacle to making friends. When I talk with adults with disabilities they all seem to share a similar story about when they were in elementary school…that they had never been invited to a birthday party or on a play date. As the mother of three children, each of whom was diagnosed with autism by the age of two, this broke my heart. I didn’t want this future for my own children or anyone else’s child.
The PeerPals.org program is designed to provide our pals with disabilities the opportunity to have typically developing peer models. It also gives our pals without disabilities the chance to meet and play with children who may not be exactly like them and to learn that that’s ok and no reason to not be friends. Our program matches children with disabilities with children without disabilities for individual and group play dates. The group play dates are guided play in a fun and safe environment, facilitated by special education professionals who volunteer their time. Our program raises awareness of the need for inclusion for children with disabilities and provides concrete ways to build these inclusive communities. PeerPals.org produces clear benefits for the children it serves. The benefits of increased self-esteem and empathy have the power to change and impact communities for years to come. As a free program we are accessible to all families regardless of socioeconomic status. We are addressing a need in the community that has been largely ignored. Our play dates are a fun and nonthreatening way to begin the conversation with preschoolers about differences in people. Our goal is not to change the child with a disability, it is to change how that disability is perceived.
How We Started
In the spring of 2008, O, The Oprah Magazine, posed a question to its readers. It asked, “If you knew you could not fail, what would you do?” I had just completed New York State’s 2007 Partners in Policymaking, which was a 130+ hour course in disability advocacy. I had the opportunity to meet and work with other parents of children with disabilities and several self advocates, who are adults with disabilities. The common thread that emerged as I got to know my new friends, was the lack of social opportunities for kids with disabilities in elementary school. It’s human nature to fear people perceived as different and I wondered if kids had the opportunity to get to know other kids with disabilities one on one, if this could change. I wondered if through multiple and varied interactions over time, whether this societal boundary could be overcome, or at least diminished. I wrote out the framework for this idea, and Peer Pals was born. I submitted my idea. It was one of over 3000 entries. I was very fortunate to be one of the 80 women chosen to participate in a three-day leadership training weekend designed to give us the tools to further develop our ideas. The conference was held in New York City hosted by O and The White House Project and sponsored by American Express.
While O Magazine was the catalyst for the creation of Peer Pals, the idea about how to achieve full inclusion for kids with disabilities came about as a result of my experience raising children on the autism spectrum. Our oldest daughter was diagnosed with autism at age two. She spent the next few years in early intervention and a school for individuals with autism. When she went to kindergarten in our local school district, she didn’t know any of the other kids in her class, and they didn’t know her. A few weeks after school started I went to her classroom to read a story and to talk about autism in general, and our daughter in particular. My husband and I also sent a letter telling our daughter’s story and giving some basic information about autism to the parents of the other kids in the class. I did the same thing again when she was in the first grade. By the time she was in second grade, many of the other kids had known her from an earlier grade or Girl Scouts. These kids were able to talk about autism and to answer the questions from their classmates. They explained how you need to be sure our daughter is looking at you when you are talking to her and that even if she isn’t answering you, she usually knows what you’re saying. It was a great feeling to watch the children in her class try to understand her and to make her a member of their community. I cried when she was invited on a playdate that didn’t include me.
When our younger daughter with autism started kindergarten, we started this whole process again. It has been amazing to watch our girls be accepted into the communites in their classrooms. It wasn’t until I met other families who didn’t have good experiences that I realized just how fortunate we are. This is why I am working to make sure every child, regardless of a disability, can start school feeling like part of the class.
How does PeerPals.org work?
A parent or guardian starts by submitting an online application. Next, you will be contacted by a member of the PeerPals.org staff to discuss your application and answer any questions you may have about the program. You will then be matched with another local applicant to become pals. We will do our best to make a compatible match, and once it is made the parents of the pals will schedule and hold an independent play date. If your child, or your child’s pal, has a significant disability, we recommend that your first play date be held with professional supervision. For example, if a child receives any in home services from a special education teacher or speech pathologist, you may want to schedule your play date during a session. We also hold group play dates. The pals sign up to come together and those events have professional supervision provided. You are also welcome to attend the group play dates before you are matched.