KUNA — For children with learning, mental or physical disabilities, making friends in middle school can be rough. In addition to the everyday challenges of being social in a new setting, having something that makes you stand out among the crowd can feel like an unbeatable hurdle.
That’s why Kimberly Nickel, a behavioral therapist for the Kuna school district, is helping establish the Best Buddies program into Kuna Middle School.
“We take friends with intelectual disabilities and match them with kids without a disability,” Nickel said. “The main goal is to create that one-on-one friendship and to have these students be seen.”
Nickel said there are more students within the Kuna school district with disabilities than many people realize, mainly because a lot of disabilities cannot be seen, such as attention deficit disorder, dyslexia and other “high functioning” disabilities.
The Best Buddies international program was founded in 1989 and has multiple chapters all around the country, but the Kuna Middle School will be only the second Best Buddies club in Idaho.
Jordan Saenz, a Boise State University graduate, created the first Best Buddies program in Idaho through BSU.
Saenz, who grew up in California, said he has participated in Best Buddies since he was a child as a volunteer. When he came to college, he realized there was a need for adults and children with disabilities for a program such as Best Buddies. So Saenz partnered with his fraternity and the nonprofit The Arc to create the first Best Buddies chapter in Idaho.
“The mission is to break down social barriers,” Saenz said. “To create inclusion for everyone. And just have that leadership development, job skills and one-to-one friendships with those with or without disabilities.”
Nickel said the Kuna Middle School chapter of Best Buddies will be a lot like the BSU Best Buddies Clubs. Students will be paired at a large reveal party. Then the club will host outings, such as pizza parties, bowling, holiday dances and more. Nickels said the confidentiality of each student is highly important to her so no students will be told who has what disability.
“We just want to be a group with a lot of friends,” Nickel said. “No labels.”
Nickel has been working with other local nonprofits and awareness groups in hopes of stifling any bullying or stereotyping against students with disabilities. During the 2015-16 school year, she helped promote the “End the R-Word” campaign. She said many students participated and learned more about hurtful stereotypes and how disabilities can affect their peers, but she said it didn’t gain enough traction.
“We need to educate our students on what disabilities really are,” Nickel said.
Saenz said he tells people who are looking at volunteering with Best Buddies to remember that a majority of the time, the volunteers and disabled students have much more in common then they do differences.
“Starting at a young age and having them learn they can be best friends with individuals with disabilities is helpful,” Saenz said. “With members I brought from BSU to The Arc, they found they have more commonalities than differences. For students and members, it builds a lot of confidence.”
Nickel said this can help improve both students’ school grades, social life, confidence, leadership skills and more.
Nickel’s goal is to make 20 friend pairs within the first year of the group. There has been a lot of interest from parents in the community, and Nickel said she has full support from the Kuna school district.
The first Best Buddies meeting for Kuna Middle School will take place three weeks after school starts on Aug. 22. Becoming a member of Best Buddies is free. Some events may require an occasional cost.
Nickel said any students or parents interested in finding a buddy or volunteering to be a buddy should visit www.bestbuddies.org and sign up.