When Brianna Reeves and Brianna Ingram met in Research PackTrack last year, they were surprised to find that they had so much in common. The undergraduate research program gave them an opportunity to delve into a topic that interested them, but it was their initial conversation about the research that gave them the opportunity to do so much more with it.
“We met last year in Research PackTrack,” said Reeves, a sophomore studying biological sciences. “We got to pick a topic that we wanted to research and we both had an interest in autism and developmental disabilities because we both have a family member affected by these disabilities. We kind of bonded over that.”
“We have really similar situations, and it’s almost creepy,” said Ingram, also a sophomore studying biological sciences. “It’s both our aunts — both our moms’ sisters. They’re really similar and being able to relate to someone who grew up in the same situation is really nice.”
Being able to share their stories was so nice, in fact, that they decided more people should also have this opportunity. Reeves and Ingram started the Special Smiles Club to allow other students to find their own support system, and now serve as the new club’s co-presidents.
“We just got to talking about our backgrounds and realizing how there was a difference in people who had grown up around people with disabilities and people that hadn’t,” Ingram said. “And so we wanted to overcome that. We were like, ‘We should start a club.’”
“It’s not that people don’t want to interact with people with different disabilities,” Reeves said. “It’s that if you’ve never been exposed to that, you don’t know how to approach them or talk to them in a normal way.”
The Special Smiles Club is meant to help students in this regard as well as serve as an inclusive, safe space for those that are familiar with disabilities. This is its first semester on campus and there has not yet been a formal meeting, so the amount of outreach and interest it has already received has been a pleasant surprise to both Reeves and Ingram.
“We were approved the second week of school, and ever since then, we’ve had emails and so many students reaching out saying things like, ‘Hey, I have a brother affected by this, or I myself am affected by this,’” Reeves said. “It’s just that they don’t have anyone to talk to, and so it’s nice to see that there was a need for this on campus.”
Ingram said her favorite thing is allowing other family members with disabilities to come together along with people who have disabilities.
“A lot of people don’t talk about this, so they don’t necessarily realize that maybe one of their friends also has a family member with a disability or has a disability themselves. It really allows people to connect with each other,” Ingram said.
And it is this opportunity for connection that both Reeves and Ingram most want to see. They say that their main goal for this semester is to provide a safe place for people to discuss whatever disability has affected their lives as well as to educate those who may not have any experience with disabilities.
“We want to start out by broadly introducing a bunch of different disabilities,” Reeves said. “How can you talk to someone without demeaning them? We want to educate everyone first and then introduce community outreach programs.”
They are planning on seeking out programs facilitated by Meredith College and the Tammy Lynn Center and then setting club members up with volunteer positions within these programs. Reeves and Ingram say that they believe these experiences would be an enrichment to the club and an invaluable opportunity for its members.
Reeves and Ingram said that these programs benefit not only the clients, but the volunteers as well. Oftentimes, the volunteers are benefited in ways they would not expect.
“You go into this thinking that you’re helping someone else,” Reeves started. “But it really grows both individuals,” finished Ingram.
“Both the person who is learning about the disability and learning to interact with the disability as well as the person with the actual disability. It just helps to have someone to talk to,” said Ingram.
Students that are interested in joining the Special Smiles Club are encouraged to look it up on the Student Involvement website. The club’s first meeting is expected to take place at the end of this month.