MORIAH Cooperative: Peer mentors for kids with special needs

Photos Courtesy of Keri EcksteIn.
Photos courtesy of Keri Eckstein.

On a sunny day at Enchanted Island Amusement Park in Phoenix, the air is filled with children’s laughter, carousel music and the whistle of the small-scale train winding its way around the Encanto Park grounds. For dozens of young children who find it difficult to interact with others and to make friends, just being here is part of a magical day.

Although it may seem like a simple thing for so many, participating in an outing like this is almost impossible for children with developmental disabilities — including autism, cerebral palsy, attention-deficit disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and a range of learning differences. A program called MORIAH Cooperative aims to change that by matching these children with peer mentors who model and teach social skills. MORIAH is an acronym for Motivating & Orchestrating Respectful Interpersonal Achievement & Harmony.

Phoenix mom Nia Uhlenhake is at Enchanted Island with her 8-year-old son, Noah, who has autism.

“I would love for him to be as typical as possible,” says Uhlenhake, who has noticed a change in her son since he joined MORIAH. “I want for him to be as independent as possible.”

That also is the goal of the MORIAH Cooperative, which was the brainchild of Brett Bernstein and his wife, Sheri. The adage  “Necessity is the mother of invention” proved true in their case: At age 3, their son Josh still wasn’t talking.

“We wanted Josh to have the ability to go to a park, and to play with typical peers and to have a speech and language pathologist or a behavior analyst that could help facilitate that socialization,” Brett Bernstein says. “Our goal was to find some program that would meet our needs.”

Above: Lauren Eckstein has mentored Madilynn Ryan on several outings, including the one to Enchanted Island. Photos Courtesy of Keri EcksteIn
Above: Lauren Eckstein has mentored Madilynn Ryan on several outings, including the one to Enchanted Island.

That program didn’t exist, so in 2014, the couple created MORIAH. Since its inception, MORIAH has served more than 100 children with special needs and provided hundreds of children the opportunity to be peer mentors.

Each outing involves dozens of participants, each of whom is matched with a peer mentor for such activities as rock climbing, bowling, yoga and horseback riding. Experts in education, speech and behavior assist in the outings as well.

Lauren Eckstein, 12, of Scottsdale, has been a mentor for two years.

“I used to be more shy, but I’ve become more open to seeing new people every time,” she says. “It’s been really great, and I’ve learned a lot.”

Brett Bernstein says volunteers come from all over the Valley.

“The participants range in age from 5 to 15 years old, while the mentors are 9 to 18 years old,” he says, “but we won’t turn anyone away. If we have an 8-year-old who wants to volunteer, we may just match them with another typical peer.”

“What I’m supposed to do here is all of these fun, different activities with different kids, and they always do really well,” Lauren says. “It’s a lot of fun helping them, and when they do it on their own, it’s great.”

Another peer mentor, 10-year-old Eric Meyer of Phoenix, is spending the day at Enchanted Island with Noah Uhlenhake.

“I just think it’s really fun to help out kids,” Eric says, “I’ve learned to not force them (to take part in activities). I let them do what they want to do. I definitely feel more understanding of what people are like.”

Right: Eric Meyer (background) spent the day with Noah Uhlenhake (right) and his brother Andrew.
Right: Eric Meyer (background) spent the day with Noah Uhlenhake (right) and his brother Andrew.

Eric’s mom, Linette Meyer, who has a background in special education, sees the benefits of the program, which gives special-needs children a chance to model the behavior of typical peers.

“I think these kids, we can’t shelter them,” Meyer says. “A child who may have autism should be able to do these fun, social things. They need to learn how to behave in a social situation, and this is a great way for them to have a mentor to show them how to act in a public place.”

Uhlenhake agrees. She says it’s difficult for Noah to keep neighborhood and school friends, and the cooperative gives him a chance to just enjoy being in a social setting. She also likes that Noah, who usually sticks to her side and wants her with him, says, “No, stay here, Mom,” when she offers to accompany him with his peer mentor on a park ride.

“The program gives opportunities for typical children to understand a child with a developmental delay,” Uhlenhake says. “I would love for families who don’t have a child with a developmental delay to participate in these programs to help their kids learn how to interact with children with autism and other delays.”

Bernstein says another key component of the program is adults who either volunteer or are paid a nominal fee to help the mentors and participants communicate. Peer-mentor volunteers also receive training.

“We leverage the services of behavior analysts, speech pathologists and special-education teachers to help at our events and facilitate the socialization, just to coach the pairs along,” he says.

Learn more about MORIAH Cooperative

Call 480-779-9011 or visit if:

  • You know a child 5 to 15 who would benefit from inclusive social programming with typical peers.
  • You or your children are interested in having a direct and immediate impact on the life of a child with special needs.
  • You would like to contribute to this nonprofit charitable organization, which depends on donations.