GREENFIELD — A few years ago, when Kathleen Burke would ask the students she taught what they did during the weekend, she was disheartened when always got the same replies: Most of them spent their Friday and Saturday nights watching TV or hanging out with family members.
What began to bother Burke, a special education teacher at Greenfield-Central High School, is that her students never shared stories about time spent with friends.
Four years ago, she decided to do something about it. Together with Janeen Gill, a science teacher at the high school, Burke helped form a local chapter of Best Buddies, an organization aimed at sparking friendships between students with and without special needs. Members of Best Buddies meet and do crafts, play games and take on other activities together, breaking down barriers between two groups of students that don’t always have the chance to interact.
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“If you don’t know somebody, most don’t take the time to try to get to know them,” Burke said. “But once you get them into a group, people can really start to open up. That’s where you start to form those connections.”
Best Buddies, an international organization formed in 1993 in an effort to promote integration among students of all abilities. It has since spread to include more than 900 high school chapters worldwide.
In the years since forming the local organization, Burke and Gill say they’ve noticed a discernible difference in the social atmosphere throughout the school. Whether it’s a high five in the hallway or a lunch table filled with students with and without developmental disabilities, both say the shift is remarkable.
“When people see the bonds that Best Buddies can form, I think it can be really transformational,” Gill said.
And aside from the experiences Gill can share about Best Buddies as the organization’s co-adviser, she also can attest to the lasting impact it can have on the students involved — even after they graduate high school.
Gill’s son, Nick, who has Down syndrome, was one of the organization’s first members four years ago. He and his buddy, Mitch Gibson, formed a friendship that has stayed strong over the years, she said.
Both now attend Ball State University and think of one another as best friends, she said.
“For my son, it was life-changing,” Gill said. “Mitch has pretty much become one of our family members since then. They’re attached at the hip.”
Burke and Gill say they strive to instill that sense of acceptance in all students at Greenfield-Central High School.
Sara Honaker, a Greenfield-Central sophomore who serves as co-president of the club, said she wants to increase the organization’s membership.
The group of 12 students is divided into what Honaker describes as three “buddy families,” which are made up of students with and without disabilities.
Although the organization used to pairs students with individuals with emotional and developmental disabilities, Honaker said a group format can actually create deeper bonds.
“This way, people can feel comfortable sharing everything with everyone,” Honaker said. “When you form a group bond, it can grow a lot more. Each person will be able to contribute something different.”
At a recent club meeting, members agreed to get together as a group twice a month to go on an outing, whether to a restaurant or the local bowling alley. Aside from meetings outside of school, members also agreed to eat lunch together several times a week.
Though a culture of acceptance is something students have been taught since elementary school, Gill said Best Buddies takes those lessons a step further.
“We try to take it beyond just tolerating other groups of people,” she said. “We want to see other truly appreciate and respect their peers. That can do so much for a person.”
National Philanthropy Week celebrates the people who make their communities a better place to live and work. This week, the Daily Reporter pays tribute to those whose selfless acts make Hancock County a place we are proud to call home.