When Melissa Todd’s son Hunter began attending Arlington High school, she had the typical worries parents face. But hers were amplified by her son’s challenges as a special needs student. “Our fear is ‘Will my child be included? Will they be liked? Will they have someone to eat with in the cafeteria?’” At age 16, her own son had never been invited to a birthday party or a social event, something she was determined to change. And so she became involved with Best Buddies.
Best Buddies is part of an international organization designed to teach inclusion and relationship-building between students with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities. The clubs are student-led, with a teacher as an advisor and the organization as a resource. Students who participate in the club agree to contact their buddy once a week by text or email, and get together twice a month, both in school and out of school “doing anything kids would typically do with a friend,” says Todd.
Since there were no clubs in Shelby County, Todd raised $100,000, and launched several clubs here. The first to take root was at Arlington High.
Senior Carlie Carter leads Best Buddies, which began last year. It was a logical fit for this bubbly teenager, whose best friend from sixth grade, Livi Aldrich, has Down syndrome. To make matches work, teens fill out a survey, so that kids are paired up with others who share similar interests and hobbies. “You want people who want be a good influence, and not just be involved because it looks good for college,” says Carter.
Building relationships can be tricky, and not just for students. “It’s sometimes difficult for parents to allow their special-needs child to go out on their own. It’s hard because the child with disabilities has never had the experience of going somewhere with their peers,” says Arlington High school Special Education Teacher Kristi Slappley. “They often want to make sure their child will be safe or helped if they can’t do something themselves.”
Both Slappley and Carter traveled to Indiana to receive training before starting Arlington’s chapter. Then they sat down to plan the year’s activities. The match party took place in October.
Making a match
An air of anticipation fills the hall at Faith Baptist Church in Arlington, as teens saunter into the room festooned with balloons for the party.
“There’s always great spirit here,” notes Madison Byrd (15) as she helps arrange decorations on the tables. She joined Best Buddies last year and returned again this year. “It feels good to know you’re helping people. It’s like one big family. When you’re here, no one gets left out.”
As the teens gather, photos flash on a screen above the stage, capturing sweet moments of laughter and friendships formed during last year’s activities. Hunter, Melissa Todd’s son, is among those pictured. Kids hug each other and visit before taking their seats. Once the program is underway, those participating as buddies are asked to line up, 14 peers on one side, 14 buddies on the other. Then, each student is given one half of a puzzle piece. While there are many more regular kids than there are matches tonight, it’s the camaraderie that students enjoy.
Finally, the matching process begins. The kids get busy looking for the other half of their puzzle piece. Two teen boys fist bump when they realize they are a match. Soon, sophomore Taylor Campo and freshman Becky Andrews also find each other.
Taylor hands Becky a present. Inside the gift bag is a Harry Potter wand and purple fingernail polish. Becky’s face lights up as she brings the wand out and twirls it around.
Taylor got involved with the club through Tiger Time, a period at the end of each Monday afternoon when students can hang out in the gym with special needs kids. “It brightens my day,” says Taylor. “We’d put puzzles together and Becky’s good at puzzles.” What’s best about Tiger Time? I ask Becky.
“Everything,” she replies with a grin.
“We needed to change the way people look at the disabled,” says Slappley. “They need friends; they want to be accepted. Often at lunch, the special-needs kids would be at one table and the regular kids at another. We needed to do something to bring them together.”
That’s exactly the point of Best Buddies. Before Melissa Todd began her organizing efforts, the program didn’t exist in Shelby County. She successfully launched four clubs in 2013. Now, that number has grown to 18 programs schools in middle and high schools as well as the University of Memphis and Rhodes college.
It’s one club where everyone benefits. Carlie says her friendship with Livi has opened her eyes to life. “Livi will dance and sing in front of people and it doesn’t matter. I’ve learned nothing is as bad as it seems. And that it’s okay to be yourself.”
Want to learn how to start a chapter at your school? Go to Bestbuddiestennessee.org.