CRYSTAL LAKE – Crystal Lake South senior Katie Benson has an uncle with Down syndrome.
Although she doesn’t see him as often as she’d like, after joining South’s chapter of Best Buddies International and interacting with her peer buddy, Ian, who also has Down syndrome, Benson said she feels closer than ever to her uncle.
“Being around Ian every week, I can understand my uncle’s condition better,” Benson, 18, said.
The Best Buddies program focuses on helping young people with disabilities grow socially and make friends.
Special-education teacher Trina Scherenberg took charge of Best Buddies this year after a fellow teacher had twins.
One of Scherenberg’s first goals was to raise awareness of the program and students with disabilities at the school. After a football game at home in which special-education students joined South football players on the field for the national anthem, Scherenberg knew she had succeeded.
“There’s more of an awareness now. The more kids that participate in the program, it adds to the awareness,” she said. “There’s more exposure now, and that was something I wanted to bring to this club.”
Best Buddies meets once a month. Scherenberg organizes occasional trips, such as a bowling trip in November and a pizza dinner next month, and throws holiday parties at the school.
“For the special-education students, it gives them a new friend and opens their eyes to new activities,” Scherenberg said. “Even for the families – the families become a part of it, too. It opens everyone’s eyes. It’s a great opportunity for everyone.”
Any student can join Best Buddies. About 40 students are interviewed to become peer buddies.
Those who are accepted are matched with a special-education student with similar interests. Some, including Benson and 17-year-old senior Chris Juliano, take their buddies to lunch every Friday. Some have their buddies over for dinner or take them to a movie.
“I’ve seen him grow,” Benson said of Ian. “The first time I took him out to lunch, he was shy and didn’t know what to think of me. But after taking him out to lunch every week and introducing him to my family and friends, he’s a lot more comfortable with me and not afraid to be himself.”
Scherenberg said many students with disabilities are not verbal, but that “body language and smiles that can’t be erased of their faces” tell her they’re looking forward to what she has planned.
Students in the program see that, too.
“When they’re working together and [the special-education students] get excited just to say ‘hi,’ it puts things in perspective for kids without disabilities,” Scherenberg said. “It teaches them how important friendship is. Friendship is very important, but we take it for granted.”
Juliano, vice president of the club, said it’s the most rewarding program he’s known. “I’m learning a lot of patience. It’s really a great deal of respect that I’m learning,” he said. “And I’m also seeing people for who they really are without that preliminary judgment.
“I see a lot of care and love in the group, and I plan to take that with me. I plan to stay with this organization through college.”