Let's go, everybody," coach Ben Rings calls out, and his wrestlers start sparring. Senior Pat Weakland, 20, hits the mat with Brendan Burnham, 16, the team's strongest competitor. In seconds, Pat has him in a headlock and Brendan is fighting to get off his back. Pat tries to pin him, but time runs out. Brendan helps him back to his feet because Pat, who has cerebral palsy, sometimes struggles with his balance. It's just a practice match-Pat won't compete against other schools as Brendan does-but, asked about the sport and the coach, he gives two thumbs up and says, "Awesome!"
A lot of Rings's students at Pine-Richland High School in suburban Pittsburgh feel the same way. "It's great!" says Andrew Schnepp, 17, who has Asperger's. "It has helped me make friends." Rings has other wrestlers with autism, but just as important: His team includes kids like Brendan, with no special needs, because he sees no reason to keep the groups apart. "He has created opportunities for friendships that, in the past, would have never existed," says principal John Pietrusinski. Adds Andrew's mom, Mary Schnepp: "Ben teaches kids to look past their differences."
Rings, 31, a special-ed instructor who teaches life skills, had already seen the benefits of blending the two populations in his popular "peer buddies" program, in which mainstream kids mentor those with special needs. "The students with special needs get a lot out of it, but so do the others," says Rings. Inspired by his stepfather, also a special-ed teacher, he volunteered in high school in a special-ed class in Marysville, Ohio. "I began noticing that when students with special needs would pass by, every student in the hallway would move to the other side, letting that student pass without any social interaction," recalls Rings. "I realized that students with disabilities needed to interact with general-education students so relationships could be built."
Ever since "Mr. Ben," a former Army sergeant, began training peer buddies in 2009, the program has grown from 30 mentors to 132. Says senior Sam Kyle: "It's awesome being able to have an impact on the kids' lives and becoming friends with them." Those bonds extend beyond the classroom, and the buddies can often be seen in the lunchroom together. Integrating the wrestling team has also made a difference. Notes Mary Schnepp: "Andrew's part of a team now. They say hi. They goof off. They make him feel normal." For all his students, says Rings, "I want them to experience everything the world has to offer."