“Inclusion makes people feel human.”
Maddie Foard is a high school junior in Longmeadow, a small suburban town nestled between Springfield, Massachusetts and the Connecticut border. She has an older brother, Jimmy, who was born with developmental disabilities. “From a young age I didn’t see why people wouldn’t include [him],” she said, “so Best Buddies was an easy choice.” Maddie became the President of the JCC Kehillah Best Buddies chapter, where general education students from Longmeadow High School meet up with similarly-aged peers with intellectual and developmental disabilities at the Springfield Jewish Community Center (JCC). “The whole community and movement behind Best Buddies is really important. Inclusion makes people feel human. There’s no reason Jimmy or anyone else shouldn’t be included just because others feel inexperienced.”
While most Best Buddies friendship chapters are limited to a single school, JCC Kehillah Best Buddies is open to all local residents. The chapter was founded in 2011 as the community center worked to expand the services offered to families of children with IDD. “We have kids from such a broad area so we are able to touch many different communities and families,” said Tina Edwards, Director of Kehillah and Best Buddies Advisor. “We have one girl who travels almost an hour just for our meetings.” For the last decade, they have partnered with Longmeadow High School to host monthly events and match students together into inclusive friendships called Buddy Pairs.
When Massachusetts shut down in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students’ lives changed dramatically. Friends could no longer sit together during lunch, classes switched to virtual on short notice, and sports, drama, and club activities had to pivot and put their meetings on hold. “All my things were cancelled,” sighed James Mark, one of the chapter’s members. He was on three different Unified and Special Olympics Sports teams pre-pandemic. “Including the Best Buddies Prom, which was my favorite memory!”
The JCC Kehillah Best Buddies officers have made it a priority to keep their chapter active this year. “Best Buddies is a place where everyone can be their most authentic and genuine version of themselves with zero judgement. Our officer team has worked hard to make that true in our chapter,” said Vice President Dylan Ratner. They do their best to meet the different sensory needs of their chapter members by alternating between fully online activities (like movie nights and Kahoot games) and more hands-on virtual events (such as crafts). For students like Dylan, who have immunocompromised family members, officers make craft kits through socially distant assembly lines any chapter member can pick up before the meeting.
Even so, developing individual friendships is hard in a virtual world. Dylan and her buddy James Mark met three years ago during Dylan’s freshman year of high school, when she was finally the right age to join JCC Kehillah Best Buddies. The two of them used to hang out often: walking, talking, and sharing stories about their lives. They would watch the Longmeadow High School senior class play together every year. These days, they see each other primarily on Zoom. While they can chat and play games in breakout rooms, they don’t have the same freedom to talk and laugh during transitions or before getting picked up to go home. James misses seeing Dylan. When he learned she would not be able to return to school or Best Buddies until the end of the pandemic, he took action. “I need to get Dylan out!” he recalled saying, while Dylan nodded and laughed. James is an avid bowler (his average score is 182!), and he loves to share his passion with his friends. This December, he worked with his family and local bowling alley to find a safe way to host a birthday party that everyone, Dylan especially, would feel comfortable attending. As people arrived for the party James met them and confirmed they were wearing masks properly. He made sure people stayed six feet apart and that masks stayed on while everyone bowled. The rule for the cake was no blowing out candles. Because of his thoughtful planning and precautions, Dylan was able to attend the party. “I am so lucky to have such great friends,” Dylan said with a smile.
James and Dylan’s friendship is what Best Buddies is all about. For Maddie and Jimmy Foard, Best Buddies has created a community of inclusion that extends beyond their monthly meetings. “Seeing the integration of everyone, including my brother, in different social scenarios is important,” said Maddie. All four of them have noticed how Longmeadow High School students are much more comfortable approaching students with disabilities in the halls. Students with and without disabilities take walks together as a break between classes. The “café days” where Lifeskills classroom students provide food and music for anyone who stops by, are better attended and everyone is more talkative. Jimmy Foard can feel the difference. “Being included makes me happy,” he says. “I have lots of friends now.”