The Fund for Santa Barbara donated $1,680 to the local organization PeerBuddies to help give special-needs children the opportunity to develop their social skills through interactions with other children their age.

The “Youth Making Change” grant will allow the private program to offer various scholarships to lower-income families. The YMC has also given financial aid to organizations such as the UCSB Global Awareness Club and SBCC’s Improving Dreams Equality Access and Success program.

According to Fund for Santa Barbara Program Manager Cristina González, the group chose PeerBuddies because it targets an often overlooked issue within the community.

“The decision was based on a board decision, which included students from age 13 to 18,” González said. “The board saw that PeerBuddies was targeting an area of need that was not being done by other organizations.”

PeerBuddies founder and Executive Director Elika Shahrestani, a board-certified behavioral analyst, said the group helps developmentally disabled children productively interact with others.

“PeerBuddies is a social-skills training intervention for special-needs children with a peer-mediated strategy,” Shahrestani said. “What that means is that kids learn social skills like how to have a conversation, maintain friendship, learn how to compromise and share toys, and they learn by interacting with volunteers of their own age.”

González said the organization provides support for a wide range of social programs.

“The Youth Making Change grants are grants given to organizations that deal with issues that young people are facing today — broad issues that affect many different people in many different ways,” González said. “We have given grants to environmental organizations, organizations that deal with public health and anti-discrimination organizations.”

The grant will allow the organization to offer more scholarships for financially constrained families unable to afford the roughly $240 per family cost, Shahrestani said.

“What would happen before was that new families with low incomes would want this program for their kids but could not afford to pay for it,” Shahrestani said. “This would break my heart. We usually get two or three clients every month, and more scholarships can help more people who can benefit from this program.”

PeerBuddies differs from other clinical or home-study programs because it pairs special-needs children with non-developmentally disabled peers to help both children learn social behaviors and courtesy naturally, according to Shahrestani.

“The problem I found in traditional programs was that they pair two special-needs children, which will not be very effective because both need to learn to interact more effectively,” Shahrestani said. “Another problem was that many of the programs were clinic-based or done in family homes, which does not give the kids the opportunities to naturally interact with children of their peer.”

Shahrestani said the social acclimation helps special-needs children develop relationships outside the program.

“I noticed that the kids didn’t have opportunities to learn social skills early on because they lacked the access to peer students,” Shahrestani said. “Many parents say that it is impossible to get play dates for their kids with autism, for example, because they have difficulty interacting with kids without autism.”

According to Shahrestani, PeerBuddies allows children to practice their social skills and become accustomed to a variety of situations.

“PeerBuddies combines two crucial elements,” Shahrestani said. “Kids can learn social skills in a real-world setting and do it with people of their own age who are more skilled in interacting. Our kids meet once a week at different locations each time so they can learn how to interact in different situations.”