by Alisa Grishechkina
Every month, a group of students with and without disabilities meet to celebrate their friendship, plan activities, and stand for inclusion. They are the Best Buddies club.
HHS Best Buddies has two teacher advisors, four student leaders, and around 70 members who celebrate their differences and one-of-a-kind bond.
Both the leaders and members of the club are passionate about promoting inclusion for students with disabilities at HHS.
“It’s different from teaching in a classroom, it’s more social…the kids have a lot of positive energy,” said Ms. Beverley Ryan, math teacher and co-advisor of the Best Buddies club.
The club is designed to allow strong, one-to-one friendships to develop between students with and without disabilities. These friendships, according to Ms. Ryan and Ms. Amanda Matcheson, co-advisor and special education teacher at HHS, go well beyond the school setting and become close, genuine bonds.
“Best Buddies is the nonprofit that promotes inclusion for people with disabilities,” senior Madeline (Maddie) Cerulli, student leader of Best Buddies, said. “For me, it’s just like… helping [students with disabilities] find friendships that are outside [of school].”
The Best Buddies program is international, with participants in 53 countries, according to the official Best Buddies website. It is a nonprofit dedicated to helping the 200 million individuals with disabilities around the world through four mission pillars (One-to-One Friendships, Integrated Employment, Leadership Development, and Inclusive Living).
“It helps decrease the isolation that people with disabilities feel,” said Ms. Matcheson. “It’s created meaningful friendships for students that may not have had that.”
Ms. Ryan added, “It starts out being an opportunity for groups of students to socialize, but different pairs or small groups of kids really click and friendships evolve, and you see them participating in activities and events outside of just the Best Buddies club.”
Best Buddies is currently celebrating its 30-year anniversary, and with it comes a partially new campaign. Previously, the club had held a ‘Spread the Word to End the Word’ campaign, which was geared towards spreading awareness about the use of the r-word as a derogatory term towards people with disabilities.
Now, it’s been broadened to ‘Spread the Word for Inclusion.’ This campaign focuses mostly on spreading awareness about how students with disabilities may feel excluded and how all students should make an effort to include them in activities.
“We’re just trying to encourage people to be open and inclusive of all kinds of differences in people… celebrate their differences and try not to be judgemental,” Ms. Ryan explained.
Cerulli said that the club is currently in the middle of their ‘Spread Awareness for Inclusion’ campaign, which is the event the most people outside of the club are involved with. The Best Buddies club arranged several activities for the entire student body to be able to understand what it’s like for students with disabilities.
The campaign is, according to the Best Buddies website, an international event as well. For the past ten years, “the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign has worked to spread respect and inclusion.” This year, the new campaign will build off of that by challenging students to pledge inclusion of individuals with disabilities.
“It’s more than just using the language, it’s about action,” Cerulli said. According to her, although spreading awareness about the derogatory terms is incredibly important, this focuses on actively including students with disabilities in the school environment, whenever possible.
The Spread the Word campaign, however, is not the only event Best Buddies is involved in. According to Ms. Ryan, the club tries to be involved in events as often as they can.
“We have some monthly event… and that can be anything from scavenger hunts to kind of an obstacle course, or it could be a crafty type project,” said Ms. Ryan. “Last year in the spring, we went to a… Best Buddies event at Harvard Stadium that was hosted by Tom Brady.”
These events can vary from a simple visit to the senior showcase to a multi-school dance. The Friendship Ball, according to Cerulli, was held at Algonquin High School on the first of March.
“We brought seven different cars, so we brought like 35 people with and without disabilities,” said Cerulli. She said the dance was similar to a typical semiformal. “We all got dressed up and took pictures and danced.”
“It was really nice because they don’t necessarily have a lot of opportunities to go to dances, like a lot of people just don’t go to the high school semi, or the high school prom, or homecoming,” added Cerulli.
The leaders of Best Buddies all had different reasons for their involvement, but they all share a passion for the club.
“My younger sister is Sam; she’s a sophomore this year, and she has disabilities, so I have a lot of friends from her classrooms that I’ve met through my whole entire life,” explained Cerulli. “So when I got to high school it [was] just another way to hang out with my friends, and a lot of my friends were joining it.”
Through Best Buddies, Cerulli encouraged meaningful and lasting friendships for all individuals.
“I wanted to make sure that my sister and her friends had sort of the same… positive, social experience… I obviously stuck with it for all four years because it’s probably the best part of my high school, all the time,” she added with a smile.
Ms. Matcheson had been involved with the club in the past as some of her students were members. However, she was not an advisor until two years ago.
“I had always thought of doing it, but it was something that I never really moved forward with,” said Ms. Matcheson.
Ms. Matcheson said she is glad she joined. “There’s this really big, wonderful, kind group of students that are in this school that I might not have gotten to know,” she said about the peer buddies. “I’ve just been really impressed with a lot of their ideas, and how they really put their all into it.”
Being an advisor “has made me more appreciative of how positive the students with disabilities are… they have such a happy outlook… it makes me more appreciative of my life,” said Ms. Ryan, who has been an advisor for six years.
Best Buddies, overall, is working to provide a caring and inclusive environment for students with disabilities here at HHS.
“It really brings tears to your eyes, it’s just so genuine and awesome. It’s such a great program for students,” said Ms. Matcheson.
image credit: NBC Washington