Lauren Dupuy, founder of West Fel Buddies, surprised JaMya Vessel with someone to do a manicure for her.

Over the past three years, Laura Glaser and Monica Traweek, teachers at West Feliciana High School, have co-taught Transitional Life Skills, an intensive, self-contained program for students with disabilities.

It is their desire to encourage each student to become self-sufficient adults beyond high school, Nicole Mean said in a news release. In past years, their students have attended school plays, awards ceremonies, pep rallies and other events, but student interactions with their peers were brief. When COVID-19 hit West Feliciana Parish, the students in the Intensive Services program were relegated to their classroom, and interaction with peers occurred less frequently.

In March 2021, Demi, the service dog, arrived at the school. Interactions with peers steadily increased as students and teachers from around campus came to play with Demi. However, the classroom was in an outlying building, which hindered student interactions. In August, the doors of the new classroom opened, and its location in the newly constructed Ninth Grade Academy has positively impacted the entire high school family.

Alana Lyons, whose science classroom is housed next door to the Intensive Services classroom, sponsors the school’s Equestrian Club and Swim Team. As she became more familiar with the students and their teachers, she wanted to find a way to include the transitional students into the homecoming events.

“I knew several of these kids were not going to participate in all the after-school homecoming festivities, so the Swim Team brought the party to them,” Lyons said. The afternoon was spent playing games like cornhole and four square and eating hot dogs and chips. “Several of the swim team kids really did not realize how interactive these guys are. We plan to host the tailgate annually.”

The Equestrian Club, another club sponsored by Lyons, hosted a day so the students could interact with Highland Boss, a well-mannered thoroughbred who belongs to Lyons’ daughter Paisley Miller.

When Lyons purchased Boss when he was 2 years old and retired from racing. He was given to the rescue organization Second Stride, who was hopeful that Boss would be purchased instead of euthanized. Miller is training Boss as a jumper for the Grand Prix.

The students made treats for Boss and painted him using livestock paint. Students brushed his mane and learned how to lead him.

“Everyone was surprised that the students were willing to step out of their comfort zones and leave their routines behind. They just wanted to interact with Boss.” Lyons said. She explained Boss can seem intimidating because of his size, “Boss is a 1,500-pound animal, yet there was no hesitation. They were not scared.”

Boss was gentle giant with the students. For instance, when one student was struggling to get on the horse because of her limited mobility, Boss walked right up to the risers and waited for her.

“It was so powerful. She rarely speaks in sentences and when she walked up to me, I did not understand what she wanted, so I told her that she had to use her words," Traweek said. "The student then said, ‘I want to get on the horse.’ Do you understand what a big deal this is? This coming from a girl who rarely vocalizes her words.”

Miller, Boss’ owner, said Boss felt the powerful energy from the day. “Boss was an incredible star. … The power that horses have in the lives of people is amazing. We saw it today.”

The Equestrian Club will host a Crochet Extravaganza to assist transitional students with their fine motor skills as well as a Kentucky Derby Party at the end of the year.

Another testament to the power of the day came from a student in which verbal communication can be a barrier. As he rode Boss, tears of joy streamed down his face. Glaser and Traweek were able to share this amazing moment with his mother via FaceTime. “I can’t explain this day in words. I don’t think I have ever cried so many happy tears in one day; it was such a heartwarming day,” Glaser said.

Student-led initiatives have significantly impacted the interaction that transitional students have had with their peers. Lauren Dupuy, WFHS senior and founder of West Fel Buddies, initially was looking for a way to earn Beta Points, but each visit with the students inspired her.

She wanted to create a club where transitional students could actively belong to the club with their peers. In January, West Fel Buddies was born and currently has 52 members.

West Fel Buddies has participated in community-based field trips with the transitional skills class, including a trip to the movies and dining at a local restaurant.

“Prior to this year, visitors were rare, but now our doors are constantly revolving." Traweek said. "The West Fel Buddies was really the bridge we needed. Our students are proud to be part of something. They are becoming stronger socially and emotionally. It is so overwhelming to see these new relationships form.”

“West Fel Buddies has been a breath of fresh air for Monica and me because, instead of sitting on the sidelines watching, our students are participating with their peers,” Glaser said.

Although Dupuy will graduate in May, she has planted the seeds to ensure the club will sustain without her. “Our school has become whole. I think, truly, this club makes our school No. 1. Everyone has been involved — our school has become whole.

“This club has impacted me in more ways than I imagined. It has changed the course of what I want to do with my life: I always knew I wanted to help people, but now I know exactly how — I want to work in Special Education. I want to be a teacher. Eventually, I want to get my degree in Educational Leadership so I can ensure this program will continue- no matter where I am in the world.”

“The friendships our students have made with the different clubs and students have not been forced-they have grown organically,” Glaser said. “Our purpose is to reach students and their families, and now our reach is extended because we are included too.”