Leaning on each other

A new chapter of an international program aims to bridge worlds and build friendships


Lauren Jeffress

Gus Krause, Best Buddies amabassador, and Maddy Merrit, president, are just two of the many community members starting a new chapter of the international program at EHS.

Different worlds coexist in the halls of EHS. There is the world of those without disabilities. These people literally walk through the halls without thinking about factors that create huge obstacles for others every day.

Spend time restricted to a wheelchair and discover how infuriating doors are. Every classroom has a closed door, and the only way in is to have someone else open that door for you.

Every hallway packed with bodies and backpacks as students transition from one class to another to a person with intellectual and developmental disabilities can feel like Simba trapped in the wildebeast stampede of the “Lion King”.

That other world is foreign to most people without disabilities.

“I see them a lot on a daily basis, but I don’t get to interact with them very much,” Alexx Irwin (10) says. “Sometimes I get a little nervous around these students because I feel like I don’t have the skills to talk to them because I don’t know what their story is.”

Talking is a first step. The language is important. Irwin is not alone in her lack of familiarity.

The fact that there is little data that exists on children with disabilities as opposed to the wealth of data available about children without disabilities testifies to how isolated children with IDD are in society. NHS members Maddy Merritt, president, and Shane Lockwood, vice-president, are founding a new chapter of Best Buddies to address the gap that exists between these worlds.

Best Buddies is an international organization that is dedicated to one-on-one friendships between those with and without IDD. By pairing those with and without developmental disabilities together, bonds outside of the school hallways are made.

“Something important about Best Buddies is that it pairs these kids together outside of school,” Lockwood said. “It is important for those with intellectual disabilities to have someone they can communicate with outside of school.”

Any student is qualified to sign up to be a Best Buddy. As the organization incorporates itself into school, anyone will have the opportunity to join. After joining Best Buddies, two students will be paired together based off of both students’ social needs.

Bringing all students together is the main goal. The mission is to end the isolation of students with disabilities and educate students without disabilities, breaking the social barriers that can be challenging for all.

The world of people with IDD is not small: 6.5 million Americans and over 200 million individuals around the world have IDD, according to the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. At EHS, there are 23 students with IDD or related disabilities.  

Exposure is vital for both people with and without disabilities. Molly Taff (12) interacts with students who receive special education services on a daily basis in Jason Conley’s fifth hour gym class.

“People underestimate them,” Taff says. “People don’t know what they are capable of or believe they can have a friendship with them.”

Building friendships and offering social mentoring, Best Buddies hopes to improve everyone’s quality of life and increase inclusion.

For those with IDD, they feel included and involved in everyday society. For those without IDD, they have a chance to lead others and help everyone feel important.

“There’s already so much that students do in this building for those with disabilities so for the general education students, this opportunity is a great program for leadership,” Christine Ude, special education area coordinator, said.

Interacting with each other exposes the possibilities and diminishes the stigma of differences. Natalie Olson (11) is another student in Conley’s fifth hour class that regularly interacts with students who receive special education services.

“Without the interaction, SSD students don’t see the possibilities,” Olson said. “They get can discouraged when they see other students functioning at a higher level. But in this class, we are equals. We’re just classmates.”

Best Buddies will bring students of differing abilities together, giving them the opportunity to learn more about one another. Both buddies will grow, mending a divided society by helping those with and without IDD coexist, merging those formerly separate worlds.   

To kick off the new chapter of Best Buddies, there will be a Best Buddies walk at Creve Coeur Park, Saturday, April 22. Sign up today to walk.

For more information on how to become a part of Best Buddies, contact Merritt or Lockwood.