By Emily Williams
Junior year has been a bit of a juggling act for Mountain Brook High School student Elizabeth “Ellie” Lipp.
Her laundry list of commitments includes her schoolwork, competitive Irish dancing, college searching, SAT/ ACT test-taking, volunteering with the YWCA’s social justice program and maintaining membership with the school’s Heritage Panel, the Latin Club and Ambassadors program. Though each commitment gets her attention, Lipp admitted that she’s always thinking about her favorite part of the day: her time co-presiding over the Circle of Friends club.
“The nice thing is, every day I get to spend time with these friends who are so positive and fun,” Lipp said.
Circle of Friends is a club that seeks to foster friendships among members of the general student body and students with special needs. When Lipp first joined during her sophomore year, there were only 58 members.
“It was a dying club. I fought endlessly to revive interest from the student body,” Lipp said.
Currently, the club has 142 members and serves 15 students with special needs. In addition to spending time and creating friendships during school hours, Lipp and her fellow club members take their business beyond MBHS walls by hosting club outings such as bowling nights and ice cream socials and, her personal favorite, attending the Special Olympics.
“Each year, we get to go to the Special Olympics,” she said. “We cheer on our friends with special needs and everyone gets a ribbon. It’s just a day filled with fun and positivity.”
To breathe new life into Circle of Friends, Lipp learned a lot about fundraising. The club’s headlining event, Circle of Friends Celebration Week, was held last month and relied on the success of the club members’ solicitation skills.
“It’s an appreciation week for special education students, the faculty and their families,” Lipp said. “We had to get outside fundraising from businesses, and we had to find people that would donate all of the lunches and breakfasts.”
Last year’s event is what sparked the rebirth of the club, leading to monthly breakfast socials and a buddy program that pairs students.
Though it took some hard work to revive, Lipp said the one-hour period that is devoted to the club each school day has become a stress reliever.
Her involvement in the club also drew the attention of the 2017 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, a national program that recognizes the top youth volunteers in each state.
As one of two honorees represent- ing the state of Alabama, Lipp will travel to Washington, D.C., in May for a four-day event hosted by the program. While she is there, she has the chance to be named one of the top 10 honorees in the nation.
Whether she makes it to the top or not, her time with Circle of Friends has never been about recognition.
Being no stranger to feeling different, Lipp sees a connection between her desire to work with special needs students and her experience moving from Pennsylvania to Mountain Brook when she was 10 years old.
“It was a bit of a culture shock. At first, I couldn’t really understand what people were saying. I remember on the first day of school, my teacher said ‘put your books up,’ and I had no idea what she meant because I had only ever heard ‘put your books away,’” she said.
Growing up with family living in the North and her day-to-day life in the South, Lipp said, gave her a better sense of how to relate to people’s differences.
“I really think it helped develop my communication and listening skills,” she said. “You shouldn’t be listening to someone for the sake of saying what you want to say, you should listen for the sake of the reply,” she said.
Helping foster a sense of respect for other’s differences has been a theme throughout her life and is shaping the way she views her future through and beyond her college career.
“My favorite subject is biology,” she said. “I want to go into genetics or maybe some kind of occupational therapy. I’m also interested in getting into public policy.”
Lipp hopes that involvement with Circle of Friends will give each member a respect for each other’s differences that rivals her own.
“Each individual has their own opinion and their own voice,” she said. “Even if they can’t communicate it easily, it’s worth listening to.”