Brashinger: L-Way East’s Best Buddies program continues to grow
By Ginger Brashinger Citizen Journalistemail@example.com December 13, 2012 2:34PM
Teachers Beth Russler (left) and Theresa Burns co-sponsor the Lincoln-Way chapter of the Best Buddies Club at Lincoln-Way East High School in Frankfort. | Supplied Photo
Updated: January 17, 2013 6:16AM
The membership of Lincoln-Way East High School’s Best Buddies club doesn’t reflect its fledgling status.
The nearly year-old club already boasts about 200 students, said co-sponsors Theresa Burns, a special services teacher at East, and Beth Russler, a teacher at East and North and department head of Family and consumer services.
As part of an international nonprofit volunteer group in nearly 1,500 schools worldwide, the Best Buddies’ mission is to “create opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” according to www.bestbuddies.org.
That mission — applied to the lives of young people in high school — brings about a very important result.
“Their social calendars are filling up,” Burns said of her special services students.
Burns said parents of the 31 special services students who are Buddies in the club told her their children are filling their free time with activities they hadn’t previously experienced with their peers.
“It’s giving some of them more self-confidence,” Burns said. “Some of the kids were hesitant to leave their parents. Now, it’s like the doors open and the kids come strutting in.”
Russler said the general education students are benefiting, too, despite the fact they gain no community service hours or school credits for their involvement in the club. Russler believes the rewards for the general education students also are very personal.
“They seem so happy when they’re at the meetings, and they’re always looking forward to an event to do,” Russler said. “I think it makes them feel good to see the smiles on the faces of the Buddies.”
Although the club is intended to be enjoyable to all, there is a leadership component that requires time and commitment. The club’s student president, senior Rachel Di Naso, is required to participate in leadership training, organize monthly meetings and come up with themes and activities.
A peer family unit is structured for each Buddy, with one general education student as the head of the group and several others as supportive family members.
Each general education peer Buddy leader is required to attend monthly meetings, contact the Buddy at least once a week and participate twice a month with the Buddy at social events.
Burns and Russler said there are no problems with students meeting those requirements, despite the fact many of the peer family members are leaders in other areas of school and are busy with several activities.
The co-sponsors said students sometimes attend meetings in sports or activity uniforms so as not to miss out. Frankly, that isn’t what the co-sponsors said they were expecting.
Burns and Katie Meader, student activities coordinator at L-Way East, started the club midway through the 2011 school year, when each of them wanted a program that paired up general and special education students.
“There was a need … because of the adaptive P.E. program,” Burns said. “They were turning away so many kids that it was clear if we started a Best Buddies chapter, the kids would come, and they did.”
Russler took over for Meader this year, when Meader was transferred to L-Way North.
At the first meeting, Russler and Burns were surprised at the “standing room only” group of general education students who showed up. The co-sponsors said they felt they would weed out many of the students with a pep talk about not using the club to “pad a (college) transcript” or join to have their name on the club list but not actually show up.
No one dropped out.
“They do it because they want to be here,” Russler said.
In fact, students have gone above and beyond the social activity requirements, including Buddies in outings they arrange on their own.
Burns said her special education students often are excited to tell her about other events they attend with their peer families, such as trips to the mall, outings for ice cream or playing video games.
The co-sponsors said they would like to see the group continue to grow, especially the number of special needs students.
“It’s raising awareness,” Russler said.
The co-sponsors said watching the general education students put their special services peers “on an equal footing” and observing the positive reaction and joy of the special services students is important and meaningful to everyone.
“We would still welcome Buddies into our program, and could accommodate a fair amount, given the number of general education students,” Burns said. “Best Buddies is an opportunity for students to grow socially in a welcoming and safe environment.”
Burns and Russler agree the growth is experienced by everyone involved. For more information, call Lincoln-Way East High School at (815) 464-4000.