by CeCe Darakjian
Once a week a very special group of "Buddies" meets for lunch on the San Clemente High School campus. These aren’t your typical high school buddies meeting to talk about last night’s game or what to wear to the dance on Friday. This is a meeting of the Best Buddies club, a club dedicated to enhancing the lives of special needs students by providing opportunities for one-to- one friendship with their high school peers. These special Buddies spend the school year participating in events designed to maximize social interaction, establish friendships and enrich the lives of both participants.
High School can be a scary time for kids. Everyone is looking for acceptance from their peers. Labels are an easy way to deal with the unknown. It can be very comforting to find and stick with your "own kind." Best Buddies helps break down the preconceived notions that kids have about people who look or act "different" than everyone else. Expectations, labels and fears fall away when people are given the opportunity to get to know and understand each other.
Karen Mitchell, a San Clemente High School Special Education teacher, has been the Special Education Advisor for the club for at least eight years. "I see the club as a great way for the kids in my class to meet more people on campus and to have a chance to get involved in some typical high school activities. Just as importantly, the club can have a profound effect on the Peer Buddies. They really get a chance to see behind the labels society puts on people. I think they come away from the club with a greater understanding and appreciation for peoples’ differences."
Best Buddies was founded in 1989 by Anthony K. Shriver. (Yes, the same Shriver family who also founded the Special Olympics, directed the first Peace Corp., and provided our state with its current first lady). The organization has grown from one chapter on Shrivers’ college campus to an international organization involving more than 50,000 participants in 10 countries. Today Best Buddies offers six programs: middle school, high school, college, citizen, e-Buddies and Best Buddies jobs. The group envisions a world where people with disabilities are so successfully integrated into our schools, our workplaces and our communities the club will no longer be necessary.
The process begins with a detailed application and interview. The club takes care to match Buddies according to interests and accessibility. Peer Buddies commit to having contact at least once a week with their Buddy. This can include a phone call home, an activity or a visit to the classroom. Besides their weekly luncheons, Best Buddies provides many other opportunities for group interaction. The entire club meets monthly for activities like their famous Halloween costume party, marching together in the Homecoming parade, bowling or ice-skating and, the highlight of the year, a trip to Disneyland.
Kaitlyn Galati and Jessica Darakjian spent last year as co-Buddies of an incoming freshman. They included her in trips to school sporting events, dance team productions and school plays. There were also cookie making sessions, family birthday parties and lots of just plain old fashioned "girl talk." "What are you going to wear?" was a favorite topic of conversation.
"Best Buddies gave our Buddy a chance to go outside of her classroom and hang out with kids she wouldn't have normally had a chance to meet I think it gave her a boost of confidence to know that there was always someone she could call just to talk about normal teenage things" said Kaitlyn.. "Besides getting to participate in a whole bunch of fun activities, Best Buddies has given me a chance to meet a whole new group of friends. It has definitely made me more aware of people with special needs and the way society looks at them. It’s been a very growing experience for me."
Having fun, making friends and changing perceptions. The San Clemente High School chapter of Best Buddies is certainly meeting its goal.