14 Apr Best Buddies walk scheduled April 28
Story and photo
by Sonja J. Keith
Conway High School students are planning a Best Buddies Friendship Walk that promotes understanding and acceptance of people with disabilities.
Best Buddies is a non-profit organization established in 1989 by Anthony Kennedy Shriver. The mission of Best Buddies is to establish a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Similar walks are held across the country.
Seniors Kylee French and Miller Myers are leading the effort for the Best Buddies Friendship Walk, planned Saturday, April 28, at John McConnell Stadium at Conway High School. Registration is at 10 a.m., with the walk at 11. A celebration is planned at noon, with a dance at 1 p.m. (For more information, visit bestbuddiesfriendshipwalk.org/Conway.)
Former Conway resident Hart Denton, who has been cast in the TV show “Riverdale,” will lead the walk with Jerome Riley. The Conway High Forensics and Debate Team and step team will also perform. There will be bounce houses and hot dogs, donated by Centennial Bank.
Teams are also being recruited for the event, with a competition and prize for the team that raises the most money.
Proceeds will be used to support a state Best Buddies office as well as the local program. Organizers hope to also raise enough money to send a Conway representative to the national Best Buddies conference.
Best Buddies, an extension of the Caring Cats club at the high school, pairs students with and without disabilities that becomes a lifelong friendship.
Special Education Teacher Cheryl Daniels, who is retiring this year from teaching after 36 years, started Caring Cats in 2005. “Yvonne Bradden and Gabby Cain are paraprofessionals that work with me and they are fantastic,” she said.
Caring Cats was created to integrate special education and general population students while providing an avenue for students to do service for others. There are no requirements for membership. “We’re helping people that no one else is helping and reaching others that don’t qualify (for other services),” she said.
In the past, Caring Cats has helped with a variety of needs, including tornado relief. Currently, the club is helping a student whose father has no insurance who has been diagnosed with cancer.
Caring Cats is the umbrella and Best Buddies is one of the club’s programs, which started last year. “Best Buddies took it to a whole new level,” Ms. Daniels said. “They were integrating and they were doing stuff, but it was on their own. When you have that one person you know you can be totally honest with and tell them what’s going on in your life, they can help that need.”
Conway High School was approached about adding Best Buddies, which offers local and national support. Last year, there were about 20 students involved in Best Buddies and that number has grown to about 120 this year.
Kylee and Miller have been involved with the club Caring Cats at Conway High School since they were sophomores. Kylee is president of Caring Cats and Best Buddies. Miller is vice president for both.
Kylee said she was encouraged to join Caring Cats by one of her teachers who said special education teachers were often not recognized.
Kylee helped with Angel Paws, one of the club’s activities, which provides Christmas gifts to students in need. “I got to really connect with the kids and I really started getting involved, when I got to see what they did. It was really cool. The difference in makes in the school really made me want to do it.”
As Best Buddies, students have regular contact with the special education student they are paired with while at school and away from school.
Miller said buddies are supposed to hang out and enjoy activities at least twice a month and make contact at school at least once a week.
“They do so much more than they would ever tell you. It’s not just at school. They are in contact with them on the weekends, they are taking them to movies, bowling, the zoo,” Ms. Daniels said. “Always before, I would have to orchestrate. It’s not like that. They come up with these things and then they tell me about it. Because of them, it’s going to keep going and getting better and better.
“It just makes my heart explode.”
Best Buddies utilizes a matching process to pair the students. Miller points out there are more general population students who want to be paired than there are special education students. There are currently 26 Best Buddies pairings.
Kylee said there are “associate buddies” for those who want to be involved but aren’t paired or who don’t have enough time to be fully involved.
Ms. Daniels and her students point out that while they do hope to raise money, they hope the walk accomplishes something more important – awareness. They also want for it to be a fun, family event that offers a teachable moment for parents.
Different businesses as well as school personnel have provided support for the event. “People have been so great to us. Our community has been amazing,” said Ms. Daniels. She and the students are particularly appreciative of Principal Jason Lawrence. “He has been such a great asset to Best Buddies and our school. His heart for kids, whether it be us or the special ed kids or kids who don’t have any friends, he is always there. He has supported us so, so much. He’s great.”
Ms. Daniels also expressed appreciation to Athletic Director Steve Daniels for his help and support of the walk.
In talking about Caring Cats and Best Buddies, Kylee said she enjoys most getting to connect with the special education students. “They have made such an impact on my life. I really mean that when I say that. They can completely light up a room.
Miller also enjoys the interaction with the special ed students, in particular the “buddies.” “They are so much fun to be around. I feel like being involved in this I have found a calling in my life in a way. I love being around them so much.”
Miller is undecided about his education or career path after high school graduation but he anticipates that he will be involved with special education students, perhaps as a teacher or a therapist. “I can’t imagine a career without them involved.”
Kylee, whose mother and grandmother are teachers, is considering a career as a special education teacher.
Ms. Daniels said Kylee and Miller have a big heart for special education students and she is confident they have the ability to do well as teachers. “They’ve talked about how the kids light up the room, but when they walk in, they light up. They see it as our kids are lighting up the room, but I see how the kids light up when they come in.”