Photo by Renzo Ferruzo
The Best Buddies International chapter at RHS forges connections between mainstream and special education students, creating a lasting influence on its members by helping mainstream students become more understanding, patient and comfortable around students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“A lot of times, people are scared of interacting with someone who has autism or down syndrome,” American Sign Language teacher and Best Buddies sponsor Emily Mellgren said. “[Best Buddies] gives them a structured environment that makes them become more comfortable.”
In her second year sponsoring Best Buddies, Mellgren said she is hoping for members, and especially officers, to become more involved.
Senior and secretary Jonathan Brake joined Best Buddies his junior year and has noticed many changes implemented this year.
“We’ve started to do a lot more work. We’ve been planning more for meetings and doing more outside activities,” Brake said. “The officers have a lot more responsibility.”
Their responsibilities include planning the meetings, creating presentations, preparing activities for each meeting and creating out of school activities.
Students register for Best Buddies on the Best Buddies International website and can join as either Peer Buddies or Associate Buddies. Peer Buddies are matched with a Buddy with similar interests through a survey on the Best Buddies International website, while Associate Buddies attend meetings and fill in for Peer Buddies who are absent.
Best Buddies meets during lunch on the first and third Thursday of each month. During meetings members eat, talk, play games, dance and participate in other activities together.
“During our lunch meetings we sit with them and do whatever they want to do,” Best Buddies vice president Emma Clark said. “You can just have a conversation with them like you would if you were with your friends.”
The club also hosts special parties for holidays, such as a Valentine’s Day party Feb. 22 from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. in the Cafeteria.
In addition to the in-school meetings, members are encouraged to spend time with their buddies outside of school. Often, buddy pairs will attend school sporting events together. The officers have arranged for members and their buddies to go to basketball games this season, Clark said.
Best Buddies influences its members beyond high school with many participants going on to work with people with special needs professionally or continuing to volunteer in the special needs community, Mellgren said. Secretary Kelly Fitzgerald is interested in a career working with people with special needs because of her experience in Best Buddies.
“I want to be an occupational therapist when I’m older,” Fitzgerald said. “I would be working with a lot of people with special needs.”
Best Buddies’ lasting impact stems from the large variety of mainstream and special needs students who participate. Each member’s unique qualities mesh with the group to make the RHS Best Buddies program unlike any other.
“Each school is unique in the buddies that they have,” Clark said. “Some are funny, others are caring and easy to talk to. For us, all of our buddies are special in their own way.”