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By Your Side was founded in 2015 by Jonathan Artal and Jackson Stewart, two students at Beverly Hills High School who had unique experiences with intellectual and developmental disability.

Jonathan’s younger brother, Ethan, has Down syndrome, and growing up by Ethan’s side shaped much of who Jonathan is and what motivates him. Watching Ethan’s patience and compassion—including towards those who mocked or ignored him—and seeing the hurdles that Ethan faced in finding welcoming communities at school, Jonathan learned firsthand the joys and barriers in life with special needs. Ethan became Jonathan's greatest teacher, showing him the beauty in those often confined to the margins. Their close relationship inspired By Your Side, a program that would build social opportunities for those with special needs and share that beauty with students across the spectrum of abilities.

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Jackson attended a middle school where many students had special needs, and noted how peers without disabilities often treated certain students as invisible. To Jackson, students and schools had adopted norms that perpetuated common stigmas surrounding disability: students with special needs often faced structural segregation from their peers, students casually used the “R-word,” and peer groups hesitated to include students with whom they had little structured interaction.

Recognizing the opportunity to foster a more inclusive school environment, Jonathan and Jackson began to work with the special needs community and special education faculty at Beverly Hills High School. With particular support from speech language pathologist Kimberly Davy Daryanani, Jonathan and Jackson first introduced “By Your Side” in fall 2015, bringing together dozens of students for weekly programs. 

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The program was simple in its conception—once a week during lunch, students with and without special needs would “buddy” up in a dedicated safe space, where students could sit, eat, talk, and develop friendships and social skills. Ultimately, they hoped to provide students with an opportunity to sit with a peer, share and laugh, and feel comfortable and accepted at their school. At the same time, they worked to help peers relate across differences and deconstruct stigmas surrounding disability. As Jonathan and Jackson heard feedback from students, parents, and educators, they saw that By Your Side was helping people—and that it had space to evolve.

Since 2015, By Your Side has introduced dedicated training and outreach programs for participating students, organized service-learning events at schools, and facilitated after-school outings and excursions to such places as parks, malls, and movie theaters. Our team has worked to formalize a curriculum and make the program reproducible beyond Beverly Hills. Most importantly, By Your Side has helped people—hundreds of students have taken part at Beverly Hills High School alone.

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By Your Side is working to further develop its programming while expanding to school districts across the country.

By Your Side has formalized its curriculum and is researching its efficacy at the schools where it's running. Our team now includes students, educators, and professionals with experience either living or engaging with disability, and we have collaborated with faculty at Stanford’s Schools of Law and Education to help the program evolve. Specifically, Madison Heller, whose experiences with family and peers with special needs have been invaluable to the program's growth, joined the program in 2017. Her vision and leadership have been essential in designing and implementing our research, expansion, and virtual efforts.

As of the 2021-2022 school year, By Your Side is operating at over ten schools in three states. Our community includes high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools across California, Minnesota, and Missouri. In a time when virtual learning has caused so many communities to fray, we're proud to have adapted our program to today's virtual needs. We're excited to bring our program to still new areas while continuing to grow where we already run.

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Get in touch with By Your Side to learn more about our work and ask how your school can get involved!

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