- FUN FEATURES
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At first glance, Cheshire High School students Jack Amato and Bobby Anthony look like regular teenage friends.
Listen to them interact, talk about parties and movies, and laugh to themselves at certain inside jokes, and nothing seems unique.
Yet, Amato and Anthony’s friendship was spawned by something different than the normal social settings that bind relationships at that age. Amato and Anthony became friends through CHS’s Best Buddies program, which partners special needs students at the school with non-special needs classmates, in the hopes that both sides learn something new and form ties that can last beyond the school.
Anthony is a special needs student who has been a part of this kind of program since his time at Dodd Middle School, which has its own partnership program. Anthony’s mother, Peg Anthony, is one of the parent advisors to the group, and she has dedicated her time to making sure that both her son, and all the participants in the group, get all the benefits available.
“The goal is to produce a genuine high school experience for the special needs students,” said Peg Anthony. “I can do things with him, or take him places myself, but it is a different experience when it is with a friend.”
The program has been thriving at CHS now for five years. Faculty advisors Karen Sova and Meg Weingart explained that the students are paired after it is determined which peer buddies would fit best with the needs of their special needs friend. After that, students meet in and out of school and are required to have two activities per month where all the peer and special needs buddies spend time together, whether that be bowling or having an ice cream social.
Sova, who was part of a Best Buddies program before coming to Cheshire, said that the program is vital because high school kids “are all high school kids, no matter what.”
“They need to have friends, and have those experiences, and grow,” said Sova.
Speaking of growth, that is what she has seen happen over the five years the program has been at CHS, she said.
“It has been amazing,” Sova acknowledged. “To see how many students are participating, and to see those friendships grow, has been wonderful.”
About 70 students in total are a part of the program, with 14 special needs students signed up this year.
Sofia Martone is the club’s president and she admitted that being a part of Best Buddies has changed her life.
“I really learned to be accepting of people,” she admitted. “I mean, they are a lot more fun than my other friends,” she continued, with a laugh.
“When I met some of the kids, I thought they were some of the nicest I have ever known,” said Martone. “I really did want to be friends with them.”
Hannah Purtell, who serves as the club’s secretary, got to know some of her special needs classmates back in the eighth grade and realized how “sweet and nice they really are.”
Getting involved with Best Buddies has offered up even more insight to her new friends.
“They are all so much fun,” she said. “We really do all have a good time.”
Peg Anthony has seen the benefits of Best Buddies first hand. Where her son Bobby had been reluctant to do things outside the home, or even talk on the phone, she now finds him willing to do all the normal activities commonly associated with teenage life.
“Now, he and Jack talk on the phone for a long time,” she said, “and I just recently let him go in a car with someone else driving. I was thrilled.”
One of Bobby’s friends at Dodd had even taught the teen how to text for the first time, Peg Anthony explained.
All of it helps to make high school a more inviting and enjoyable experience for special needs students, but club advisors see huge benefits for peer buddies as well. The experience teaches leadership skills and helps students with their own self confidence.
“Before, I was scared to do a lot of things outside of school,” admitted Martone. “Now, I will go anywhere and be friends with anyone.”
Peer buddies are required to report, per month, to the state Best Buddies offices, explained Nikki Besitko, director of Best Buddies Connecticut. The reporting requirements are just an informal checkup to make sure things are going smoothly between the peer and special needs buddies.
“Like in any relationship, there could be problems, so we just like to check in to see if there is anything with which we could help,” she said.
Besitko admitted that the goal of Best Buddies is actually to put Best Buddies out of business.
“If we start at a young age, then it matriculates up,” she explained. “One day, we won’t need to have a Best Buddies in Cheshire. The friendships will just form naturally at the high school.”
For more information on the Best Buddies program, visit www.bestbuddiesct.org.