GREENFIELD — Watching them interact, you might mistake Mitch Gibson and Nick Gill for brothers.
The teenagers both have dark hair and wear glasses. They talk loudly, laugh even more loudly and bicker like nobody’s business.
And if Nick doesn’t like something Mitch has to say, a slug in the arm is almost a guarantee.
It’s the sort of playful relationship you might expect of two boys who have known each other since grade school – not ones who have just gotten to know one another.
Mitch, 17, and Nick, 18, became fast friends last year during a program aimed at building friendships between students with and without disabilities.
Nick, who has Down syndrome, constantly smiles and clearly enjoys making others laugh. Mitch was drawn to his upbeat personality.
“We’ve just been friends ever since then,” Mitch said. “He’s a loving little kid, … always happy. Seeing him makes me smile every day.”
This year, Mitch and Nick are partnered together in the newly created Best Buddies, a Greenfield-Central High School club based on last year’s pilot program, Peer Pals. Each month, club members hold parties or go on outings, such as a trip to the movies or to go bowling.
Best Buddies, which has more than 900 high school chapters worldwide, has been pairing high schoolers with individuals with emotional and developmental disabilities since 1993 in an effort to promote integration among students of all abilities.
What results are friendships like the one shared by Mitch and Nick.
Nick’s mother, Janeen Gill, is a science teacher at the high school who helps out with the program. The relationships her son has developed has been heartwarming for her to watch. Mitch is especially good with him, she said. As a result, she considers him one of the family.
“He’s like my other kid,” she said. “It’s great.”
This is the first year for Greenfield-Central to have its own Best Buddies chapter, something organizer Kathleen Burke says has been a year in the making.
Burke, a special-education teacher, started a Best Buddies chapter in New Palestine when she worked at the high school there and saw its success firsthand.
“In order to make inclusion happen, you really have to teach students how to make friendships,” she said. “When we form groups like this, they get to interact and have friendships like everybody else has. That’s how you learn how to be a friend is by being around people who accept you.”
When she came to Greenfield, she decided she had to bring the program with her.
But getting started isn’t easy. All students involved must be interviewed individually and complete paperwork in order to qualify.
Burke started Peer Pals last year while waiting for approval for a Best Buddies chapter, and many of the students who participated last year have returned.
The first call-out meeting was overwhelming, with dozens of students filling the high school auditorium to find out more about becoming part of Best Buddies, Burke said.
Ultimately, the effort was scaled back because there are only 10 children with special needs who were available to be paired up.
But for those 10, the program has made a world of difference, Burke said.
“Literally, last year, it was ‘I have no friends,’” Burke said, citing a complaint she often heard from her students. “I just don’t hear that anymore.”
Kendall Speer, 18, is partnered with Gretchen Heflin, 19.
While Gretchen initially was shy, she started opening up when she discovered Kendall waiting on her at lunch so they could sit together.
The conversations don’t focus on how they are different but what they have in common, Kendall said.
They both love movies, and they’ve been especially excited about a marathon of Christmas specials on TV.
Michaela Bova, 17, has a young cousin with special needs and said interacting with those with disabilities has made her who she is today.
“I’ve learned to appreciate the little things,” she said. “It makes you realize life’s not all about the special and important things; it’s about the little things that make it last.”