In the life-skills classroom at Radnor High School, there’s no question that the nine children with intellectual and social disabilities are a tight-knit group. It wouldn’t be difficult for these special education kids to feel isolated from the rest of the school, but with the help of Radnor High School Best Buddies, these students have tons of opportunities to integrate themselves into the school’s social life and realize they’re important to the success of the school.
Best Buddies, a local chapter of the international organization that’s affiliated with the Special Olympics, seeks to facilitate close friendships inside and outside of school between “best buddies,” the kids aged 14-21 from the special education class, and “peer buddies,” volunteers from the high school. The buddies are matched up each year and, due to the overwhelming number of interested students, each best buddy is paired with three or four peer buddies.
The club organizes monthly social events like a bowling night, an outdoor field day and an all-night movie-screening lock-in. Friendships between the buddies are strengthened during these events, leading most of the students to hang out on their own. Chelsea Connolly, co-president of the organization, has seen the impact of these relationships on the best buddies’ confidence and self-esteem. “Many of them are insecure and shy at first, but now all of them are very comfortable in their own skin,” she says.
Best Buddies is not a mentoring program. Instead, it’s viewed as a way of bringing people together who might have never received the social opportunity. “The organization brings friendship and pride to people,” says co-president Emily Leister. “When you’re with each other, you don’t think of disabilities or anything like that. You’re all just high-schoolers, hanging out and having a good time.”
One of the most interesting events is the Best Buddies Friendship Ball, held each year at one of the 15 participating high schools in Southeastern Pennsylvania (this year, Haverford High School on May 8). The ball functions as a prom, with more than 300 participants in attendance. According to faculty advisers Eileen Mann and Holly King, it’s a way for students to “come dressed up in prom attire and dance the night away surrounded by kids who understand and accept who they are.”
To learn more, visit bestbuddies.org.