*Editor’s note: Names in the article have been changed for privacy.
On Wednesday, June 6, students trickle into an empty room and thumb through their phones, waiting for their friends.
The term friends, in this setting, refers to disabled Rexburg citizens and students who meet weekly in the Gordon B. Hinkley Building Room 271 with BYU-Idaho students as a group called Hands.
When a friend in the program, Melanie Ward*, walks in, the atmosphere changes like a dark room when someone turns on a light. Smiles grace faces, who now look up from their phones. Ward laughs and calls out to students she knows as she scrambles to hug them.
Later, Jerry Romrick* and Isaiah Jacobson* saunter in. Then Cole Collins*, Katie Blakely* and *Nina Wisen*. Each friend charges the room with their smiles and laughter. More students now disengage from their own affairs and welcome their friends.
In less than five minutes, a dead room becomes alive.
“Welcome, welcome everyone,” said Krista Kohlhase, the weekly leader of Hands and a senior studying recreation management. Kohlhase, with her bouncy blond ponytail, beams as she welcomes students and friends.
Like every Wednesday, they kick off the activity with introductions. Students and friends state names and declare their favorite color to the group.
The room groans as five consecutive “pinks” were declared and Ward squeals happily when someone finally says blue.
The room pulses with red, blue, green, pink and yellow as introductions conclude.
Students and friends scooch their chairs up against the tables to make room as Wisen rides to the front of the room on her motorized chair. Donning her favorite color, purple, on her patterned leggings, she leads the group in the song “I Am a Child of God.”
Ward prays for “a good time” and the activity begins. Students help friends create paper plate paintings with Q-tips and markers.
The room never quiets. Phones never resurface, except to capture moments of Picassoesque brilliance, and smiles never fade.
But the Hands program at BYU-I does more than arts and crafts.
“It gives me opportunities to grow, volunteers the opportunities to grow (and) the friends opportunities to grow,” Kohlhase said.
Students lend their hands to friends who sometimes can’t move on their own, and friends lend their hearts to students burdened by the stresses of life.
Becca Owen, a junior studying recreation management, recently started attending Hands as a volunteer.
“I remember the first time I went to it,”she said.”I swear my mood just shot through the roof when I went in. I wasn’t having a bad day or anything, but I just was happier being in that room.”
A month ago, Nanette Elen*, a friend of Hands, sat across from Owen. Elen struggled to communicate audibly, so she reached across the table for Owen’s hand.
Owen admitted Hands pushes her outside of her comfort zone.
“Sometimes I do feel uncomfortable,” she said. “I don’t know how to approach people that have disabilities or maybe can’t communicate fully, but I think it’s been really good for me because we are supposed to love everybody, and I think loving people includes me including them.”
Owen is not alone in her occasional discomfort around disabled persons.
According to the American Psychological Association, “Many people feel uncomfortable around individuals with disabilities. Much of this discomfort stems from lack of personal contact with people with disabilities and a sense of awkwardness and uncertainty as to how to speak and act in their presence.”
Hands immerses volunteers with little to no training in activities with disabled persons. Volunteers develop soft skills such as social perceptiveness, speech recognition and problem sensitivity.
“Every activity I leave gaining a new insight about life,” said Autumn Lulla, the current coordinator of Hands and a junior studying recreation management. “Generalized as a whole, special needs service activities will, hands down, be the best thing you will ever get involved in. Not only will it give you the most best of friends you could ever want in college, but it will open your eyes and give you a purpose and deeper meaning of life.”
Even the simplest of activities changes the hearts of the students involved. Kohlhase recounted a day when Ward brought her bunny, Spot, to campus for show and tell.
Kohlhase laughed while remembering how happy Ward was to introduce Spot to everyone. When asked what has been her favorite experience with Hands, she said “They’re all my favorite.”
Talent shows, field days and superhero dances all serve the friends, but not just friends are served.
As students and friends trickled out of Hinkley 271, people were smiling and laughing. They left better than they were before.
All because someone gave them a hand.