Woodland starting Best Buddies chapter

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WRHS

REGION 16 — The wheels are in motion to establish Region 16’s first Best Buddies chapter at Woodland Regional High School.

Best Buddies is an international nonprofit organization based in Miami, Fla., with offices throughout the country and world. The organization is dedicated to “establishing a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” according to its website.

For the high school program two students, one with intellectual disabilities, would be paired together as buddies in order to help the student with disabilities break through social barriers.

The effort to bring the program to Woodland is being spearheaded by George Meyers, the school’s psychologist and unified sports coach, with the help of special education teacher Tina MacSweeney. 

Director of Best Buddies Connecticut Darlene Roberts, who spoke to the board Oct. 9, described Best Buddies as a “social-inclusion program.” The buddies would communicate weekly and spend time together at least twice a month, she said. Each school chapter is led by the students, she said, but a Best Buddies staff person is assigned to every chapter to help it grow.

Roberts said the focus in Connecticut is to grow the number of chapters in middle and high schools. Currently, she said, there are 46 school chapters in the state.

One of those chapters is at Naugatuck High School.

Naugatuck High Associate Principal Eileen Mezzo explained the NHS chapter was started last year after the parent of a student with intellectual disabilities brought the idea forward. The school had a similar informal program, she said, but Best Buddies is much more organization.

For the first year, Mezzo said, the chapter had about eight buddy pairs and 10 associate members. The chapter held regular meetings but since it was the first year of the program the activities were limited to events held at the school, Mezzo said.

The buddies would attend school events together, such as the annual Rip the Runway fashion and talent show, Mezzo said. Special activities were also held just for the chapter, including a scrapbooking event and the chapter decorated a tree for the United Way of Naugatuck and Beacon Falls’ annual Festival of Trees, she said.

“I think it was a tremendous first year,” Mezzo said.

Mezzo said the chapter also raised funds to help defray the cost of sending the president and vice president to the annual leadership conference.

Mezzo said the program has been good for students. She said it’s helped to increase awareness and continue the school’s theme of tolerating and respecting the differences of others.

“I think it’s created some unique friendships,” Mezzo added.

The plan in Region 16 is to begin the program at Woodland then expand it to the middle school, according to officials. While every member of the school board fully supports the program, the board was hesitant last week to approve it if there is a financial impact to the budget. 

The program could cost as much as $4,000 said Superintendent of Schools Tim James, who added that figure is on the high end. The expenses include $300 in chapter dues, expenses for sending at least one student to the Best Buddies annual leadership conference and the cost of paraprofessionals who may be needed to assist students with disabilities during activities.

Donna Cullen, vice chair, said the concept of Best Buddies is wonderful but she’d be apprehensive about moving forward with funding an additional program since the board’s budget is already set.

Board member Robert Hiscox said the board agonized over cuts in this year’s budget. He said he has no problem with the program, but that it should come back before the board as a budget proposal.

“I just think it’s unfair to the process,” he said.

While the board expressed budgetary concerns, the money to get the Best Buddies chapter off the ground will come in the form of a grant.

James announced at the meeting the program won of one of the district’s innovative grants this year and will receive $1,000.

The grant will help to get Best Buddies started, and Meyers said his goal is to start raising funds immediately for the Woodland chapter. 

Board Chair Priscilla Cretella asked Meyers to put together a fundraising plan to present to the board at its next meeting later this month.

“We are excited about it. But we did have a horrible budget year,” Cretella said. “But this is something that’s a positive, so we want to take the positive and run with it. But, we do need the money.”

Following the meeting, Woodland Principal Kurt Ogren said Best Buddies is a great opportunity for all students. He said the program helps to develop leadership and foster friendship in students and that Meyers and MacSweeney will do a phenomenal job leading the chapter.

“I’d definitely call it a win-win program,” he said.