Calling it a fun way to make a difference, local organizers are hoping to recruit high school students to rebuild the local “Best Buddies” chapter.
“‘Best Buddies’ Canada is a national charitable organization and it’s dedicated to helping communities through one-on-one friendships with individuals with intellectual disabilities as well as students,” said Sarah Van De Walker, community development co-ordinator with Community Living Fort Frances and District.
After having run locally for a few years, the “Best Buddies” program had fallen by the wayside until Van De Walker came on board at Community Living and began work to re-establish the program by recruiting new Fort High students.
“The program works by establishing chapters within schools across Canada—it’s also in the United States, as well—and each chapter is comprised of student volunteers who are matched with individuals who have intellectual disabilities,” she explained.
“It’s the hope that these matches evolve into strong friendships, within school and outside of school, as well.”
“It’s really great and anybody should feel free to get involved with it at any time,” remarked Jillian Kellar, the Fort High student who has been recruited as president of the local chapter.
“If now’s not a good time, then maybe at Christmas, or maybe in March, anytime they can become involved,” she stressed.
Besides being fun, the program also is a “great experience” for students, helping them as they head into university or their future careers, Kellar noted.
“It’s highly-beneficial to students,” agreed Van De Walker, noting that along with getting youths involved in volunteering, one of the main benefits of the program is that participants interact with people within the school community that they might not have normally interacted with.
“And from there, they learn life lessons that they won’t even realize immediately,” she said.
“‘Best Buddies’ is grounded in the belief that friendship is important to the development of all individuals,” Van De Walker added. “For all individuals with intellectual disabilities, friendship is a medium through which they can become a part of their community.”
While the program often is focused on pairing up participants, Van De Walker explained the local chapter instead is organizing a lot of group activities so that “everybody can meet everybody.”
These activities include meeting on Wednesdays for bowling at Plaza Lanes and Monday movie nights, as well as having the group become involved in other community events.
“What we want to do is put on one major event a month, whether it’s the Hallowe’en bowling party [held Oct. 29] or if in the future we do a karaoke night, or we all go out to the movies, or have supper,” Kellar noted.
“I feel programs like this are important because it’s getting every aspect of your community involved,” she explained.
“Because lots of these people that we work with or hang out with don’t get to be involved in sports trips or different clubs, and this way it’s saying, ‘Yeah, you can be a fan of this, and you can participate this, and it’s giving them a friend to be able to do that with.”
The hard work being done to resurrect the program even has garnered recognition, with the local chapter being presented with an award for the “Most Dedicated Chapter in all of Ontario” at a “Best Buddies” conference held in Hamilton back in September.
“It was a really big surprise,” Kellar said of the recognition.
“It was an amazing feeling,” echoed Van De Walker. “We definitely were not expecting it, especially when other high schools’ [‘Best Buddies’ programs] within Ontario are so well-established, and they’ve been doing this for long periods of time and they have a huge outcome of volunteers as well as students with intellectual disabilities who want to participate.”
“It was really nice to know that we had support,” added Kellar. “It was a push for us to keep going and make it work in the Fort Frances High School.”
Students who want to become involved with the local “Best Buddies” program can do so by contacting Van De Walker at 274-5556 ext. 219 or Kellar through the main office at Fort High.
There is no limit to the number of students who can get involved with the program, Van De Walker said, noting it also is available at the university level—which means an “easy graduation” for those who want to remain involved after high school.
“It’s a great learning opportunity for everybody involved,” Van De Walker remarked. “And who doesn’t want to get involved in something that’s fun and involved in the community, where they can build lasting friendships?”