By Nancy Price
For many teenagers, high school can be an exciting time. They’re meeting other peers through sports, band or other clubs, getting their driver’s licenses, attending prom and homecoming and hanging out with their friends on the weekends.
For others, attending school can be lonely, stressful and overwhelming, especially if they sense they are different from their peers and feel excluded. A program at Greenwood High School, Greenwood Buddies, helps to create a bridge between mainstream students and those with special needs.
AN INCLUSIVE SCHOOL ENVIRONMENT
Greenwood Buddies was inspired by Best Buddies International, a nonprofit 501(c) (3) organization dedicated to ending social, physical and economic isolation of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) such as Down syndrome, autism, Fragile X, Williams syndrome, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and other undiagnosed disabilities. Programs include Best Buddies friendship chapters in middle schools, high schools and college. Friendship chapters create “buddy pairs” between students with and without disabilities to help to create an inclusive school environment and a culture of acceptance.
“In the past, when students could be together physically, we held really engaging events monthly from September through May,” said Linda Hanek Williams, a Greenwood High School English teacher and co-sponsor of Greenwood Buddies. “We were always able to begin in September with a fun ‘get to know a buddy’ evening inclusive of games, dancing and pizza, of course! For the remainder of the academic year, we held one-hour gatherings after school monthly that included playing cornhole, shooting basketball hoops, drawing, making ornaments, or sharing a pitch-in meal. We try to allow for buddies to be able to either be out in the hallway playing a game, or sitting in a classroom listening to music, chatting and snacking.”
Aleshia Kennedy, program supervisor for the Essential Skills Program, is also a co-sponsor for Greenwood Buddies. Kennedy works with students in the Special Education Department. During her first year as a co-sponsor, Kennedy said there was so much interest from students wanting to participate in Greenwood Buddies “we didn’t have enough seats (in the classroom) and had to meet in the auditorium,” she said. “They love it; they look forward to (being in the program) every year. It’s something for them to be a part of. They wear their Greenwood Buddies shirt every Friday and get excited to see others wearing the shirt.”
“As a father, it has been a great opportunity for (my son) Evan to socialize with other students,” added Jason Gorrell, a Social Studies teacher at Greenwood High School. “Evan loved the after-school get-togethers and seeing all of his friends from school. He liked the snacks that were at the parties and he loved to provide Mountain Dew for his friends. He always looks forward to the next event Best Buddies has planned.”
“As a teacher, I see this as a great opportunity for our students to get involved in something bigger than themselves,” he continued. “Being able to volunteer their time is a learning experience for our students and may open career opportunities for them that they had never considered before.”
BUIDLING GREAT RELATIONSHIPS
Madelyn Wells, a Greenwood Buddy, said she had little experience with others with special needs before joining the program. “I have learned how loving and funny students with special needs are,” Wells said. “They are some of the kindest, most genuine people. I have built great relationships with my buddies and always look forward to seeing them, giving them a big hug and catching up. I am so grateful to be part of the program.”
“I have learned that those with special needs are no different than me,” added Wendy Moreno, a senior and co-president of Greenwood Buddies. “Last year I had a buddy who I was able to bond with so much due to the fact that we liked the same things. It was nice going into meetings and knowing that I was going to have so much fun and be able to bond with my buddy.”
Lillian Mull, a junior and Greenwood Buddy, said that being a buddy has taught her patience and helped her to understand things from a different perspective. “It has also challenged me to come out of my comfort zone to get to know others within the group,” she said.
Although the buddies have missed seeing one another due to COVID, they’ve found ways to stay in touch. Buddies in mainstream classes have sent encouraging notes and crafts to their buddies on a monthly basis.
“This year has been challenging as we have had to be very creative in figuring out how to stay connected with our buddies, virtually, without sharing space or sharing in person time with one another,” Williams said. “We are choosing to take a positive approach and to be as creative as possible in our monthly outreach and connections. This year our students decided to create a Zoom game for ‘Friendsgiving’ so our buddies can be together and see one another.”
For more information or to learn how to set up a Best Buddy friendship chapter, go to bestbuddies.org.