New Canaanite Rachel Cohenour has ringlet curls, a soft demeanor and a penchant for teaching. When the 14-year-old Saxe Middle School student isn't practicing ballet, modern, lyrical and African dance at the New Canaan Dance Academy, she teaches beginner ballet steps to 4- and 5-year-olds. She also leads a mentor group for a fellow eighth-grader through Circle of Friends, a volunteer social group that provides students with special needs with a network of students with typical abilities.

Two years ago, Tammy Mardirossian, a guidance counselor at Saxe Middle School, organized a Circle of Friends group to help a special needs student, who is unable to verbally communicate, bond with her peers. She immediately called on Cohenour to join the group, which meets every Tuesday for a 45-minute activity like finger painting or beading.

"She's in one classroom all day and works one-on-one a lot with an aid, so she doesn't get to see a lot of students," Cohenour said. "I have a lot of fun, of course, and it's rewarding to realize you can make an impact on someone, like when she was first able to recognize me and she put out her hands to hug. What I get out of it isn't tangible; it's not something you can hold. It's seeing her respond and react. It's seeing the hugs, the smiles, the laughs."

Cohenour recently organized a birthday party for her friend, complete with decorations, cake and crafts.

"She doesn't really have any friends, but now she has us," she said. "I love birthdays -- I think my birthday is the best day of the year. And she never has had a birthday party. So I talked to her mom and said, `Maybe we can do something about this.'"

Mardirossian describes Cohenour as "polite, kindhearted, selfless [and] confident."

"It is obvious that Rachel adores her friend, and even though her Circle of Care student isn't able to speak, I know she adores Rachel as well," she said. "Whenever Rachel walks into a room, her friend knows she is there. Her face lights up and the smile on her face is priceless."

This year Cohenour took the reigns in organizing activities for her Circle of Cares friend. At Halloween, the group, which includes a handful of student mentors, stuffed goody bags with candy and donated them to Person-to-Person in Darien. Recently the group baked brownies and cookies to contribute to a school bake sale.

"It's a learning experience for her and it's a learning experience for me," Cohenour said. "I can't ask her if she prefers chocolate chip or ginger bread cookies. With her, you have to point to things and make associations. She has her good days and bad days, but you can tell what she likes usually by if she's smiling or laughing."