By Rebecca Brandel
A teenage girl with Down syndrome goes about her daily life, from swim lessons to her school day to a club after school, but a common theme follows her throughout her day. She is isolated socially from her peers. She swims alone, sits alone at lunch, and is ignored after school.
One day, one of her classmates picks up an ad for the Best Buddies organization at her high school and decides to join. Although the two do not know each other yet, both of their lives are about to change.
As the student who joined begins to spend more time with the student with Down syndrome, they begin to grow closer, attending a school dance, eating together at lunch, and talking on the phone, and it is clear to see they are both blossoming.
A video depicting this scenario is posted on the website for Best Buddies, the world’s largest organization dedicated to helping people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, form meaningful friendships with their peers, live independently, improve public speaking, self-advocacy, and communications skills, and feel valued by society.
Often times, those with intellectual and developmental disabilities are isolated socially, physically, and economically. This Best Buddies community serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Here at Canisius College, a chapter of this organization is being started. Its first general body meeting was held on 1 February in Old Main.
Co-Presidents Kayla Ortega and Emily Bitka worked together to start Best Buddies at Canisius.
The program manager for Best Buddies New York received a grant to open up more Best Buddies in the WNY area. An email filled with information was sent to local colleges, Canisius included.
Bitka was given the information from her boss at the Young Adults Life Transitions (YALT) program on campus and, after reading it, she knew Canisius needed to introduce this program.
“I have seen hands-on, in the classroom, students with IDDs either strive or fail in the general education classroom, not because they weren’t smart enough, but because the student who did [exceptionally] had good friendships with their peers, while the student that fell behind had made no friends,” said Bitka, a Special Education/Childhood Education major. “Students with IDDs that grow up having many friends with typical peers tend to develop typically, succeed better in school, and lead a happier and more independent life.”
Big Buddies is not a mentorship program, for in this program, college students and Buddies are equal. The club strives to connect people to make life-long friendships where both gain and learn.
The Buddies for the club will mostly be students from the Canisius YALT program, which is a vocational program for students with disabilities.
“This is something that is very near and dear to my heart,” said Bitka. “I have worked for the YALT program for the past three years. My students are just like anyone else, and I want them treated that way. They love making new friends.”
Members sign up through Bestbuddies.org to indicate they are a student at Canisius, and then every Buddy and Peer Buddy will fill out an interest survey.
The E-Board members will look for connections between the surveys, as well as members at group events, and see how they get along before determining which members would be the perfect match.
After being assigned a Buddy, Buddies should meet twice a month and can do any activity together that they choose. Buddies are also required to text/call their Buddy four times a week. There will also be group events every month where all Buddies can get together and hang out.
Members with a Buddy are referred to as “Peer Buddies,” while a member who does not have a Buddy but still comes to group events is known as a Buddy Associate.
“My students are smart, funny, friendly, kind, silly, and the most amazing people. I wanted them to be able to show everyone else that,” said Bitka.
Upcoming Best Buddies events include a pizza and ice cream party, karaoke, a trip to the Buffalo Zoo, and events such as Relay for Life and Friendship Walk.
Best Buddies’ next meeting is 7 February at 7:15 p.m. in OM 104. This will be an opportunity for Canisius students to get to know the Buddies and play some team-building games!