Written by Carolyn Kuimelis
Best Buddies is the world’s largest organization committed to ending the isolation of the 200 million people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.The organization strives to help people in the special needs community form meaningful relationships with their peers and feel valued by society. They encourage youth to take action in advocating for the Best Buddies mission statement of fostering an inclusive and accepting environment, and co-founders of Gunn’s Best Buddies club juniors Kaitlin Chung, Angelica Kolar and Ember Lin-Sperry decided to do just that.
The three were inspired to start a club by their experience with an internship with
Magical Bridge Foundation they had over the summer. Magical Bridge Playground is heralded as the nation’s most innovative and inclusive playground, and Magical Bridge Foundation advocates for a community that is accepting and loving of everyone, despite differing abilities. “We got a lot of first-hand experience with kids and young adults with cognitive differences [during the internship], so we were inspired to start a Best Buddies at Gunn, especially when we heard about how successful the Paly Best Buddies was,” Lin-Sperry said.
The co-presidents hope to promote Magical Bridge’s ideas of kindness and inclusivity in their own club. “I hope that this club spreads the message that special needs kids and people aren’t limited and they can do so many more things that people don’t think they can,” Chung said.
Special education teacher Sandra Conklin, who advises the Best Buddies club, sees the positive impact the club has already had on her students. “I feel like several of the students have more confidence around their peers on campus just because of the friendships that they’ve made in our classroom,” she said. “I see them walking around campus and being more comfortable joining in groups at lunchtime because they have recognizable faces.”
In the club, students with varying abilities come together to make friends and learn from each other. A typical meeting consists of eating, playing games and lots of laughter. Club members also help the students prepare for the Special Olympics. “We had the most laughter during the charades games,” Conklin said. “The airplane flying contest was awesome, and we had a lot of students from around campus come to watch, even though they weren’t part of the buddies club.”
Kolar, whose sister Marilyn is part of the Best Buddies club, enjoys that the club allows her to spend time with her sister and see her make connections with other students outside of her class. “It makes me feel really happy to see that she’s around people that can make her feel more included in the Gunn community,” she said.
Conklin appreciates the club’s message of acceptance and hopes that all students will realize the importance of kindness and inclusivity. “It’s been wonderful for us and wonderful for our students to feel a part of the Gunn community, and I think the Best Buddies club really helps facilitate that inclusiveness and models to all students on campus how important it is to value everyone,” Conklin said.
As for the future of the club, the presidents hope to have events with other Best Buddies clubs in the Bay Area. The club meets in room F-2 on Wednesdays during lunch. “You don’t have to come every week, even if you just want to drop in and say hi, you don’t have to stay for the whole lunch,” Chung said. “It really means a lot to everyone.”