Interpersonal Skills program helps Free State students forge bond

Free State seniors Dominique Shaffer, Alysia Foust and Ashley Abbott developed a special bond through a class called Interpersonal Skills. The three agree that they began high school as loners but have been able to come out of their shells through community service and overcoming personal adversity.

Ashley Abbott started her high school career in isolation, snarfing down lunch alone before scurrying off to find somewhere to hide.

Dominique Shaffer screamed and yelled so much that she scared others away — even if, inside, she was the one who was afraid.

And Alysia Foust? She struggled with stress, with sleep, with simply mustering enough confidence to get through the day.

Well, look at these girls now.

The Free State High School seniors, self-described “animal people,” have collected piles of bleach, towels, food and other supplies for the Lawrence Humane Society. They’ve organized animal-therapy sessions so popular that they literally had to push fellow classmates out of the room.

But most of all, they’re the best of friends — smiling, laughing, sharing and succeeding like they never could have imagined before. And today’s commencement, at 4 p.m. at the Firebirds’ football stadium, marks both the end of a transformative chapter in their young lives and the beginning of their opportunities to move on and make a difference — both for themselves and for anyone else who might happen to catch a slice of their boundless energy, limitless compassion and steadfast commitment to see more, do more and, yes, be more.

“The learning is us,” says Andrew Nussbaum, their history teacher and leader with Darrell Andrew through the Interpersonal Skills program, where they’ve blossomed during the past three years. “The learning is our relationships. The learning is our differences. The learning is our different outlooks.”

The girls actually have been friends since their time at West Junior High School. Alysia recalls Dominique, aka Domino, yelling at someone down the hall — the kind of scream intended to draw attention from everyone other than the person it had been directed to.

Alysia responded with an admonition to shut up, to calm down.

The two became fast friends.

“People think we’re attached at the hip,” Domino says now.

Ashley would join the crew later, and now the three “chicas” don’t intend to let anything get in their way. Alysia plans to attend Washburn University, while Domino and Ashley are set to take classes at Johnson County Community College.

The bonds they’ve formed, the relationships they’ve forged and the skills they’ve collected won’t cease just because the time finally has come to walk across a stage, pick up a diploma and move on to other things.

They’re graduating from school, but taking with them the strength to succeed.

“I don’t have to be scared,” Alysia says. “I’ve gained confidence in myself and learned new things about everyone.

“It’s just cool.”