Carlyn Mueller knew from an early age that she wanted to help children with special needs. She knew because she was one.
"I have a disability myself, and it's basically just physical, so there was just always something about the idea of helping someone with a more severe disability," said Carlyn, who has cerebral palsy, a condition that causes varying degrees of impaired motor function.
Carlyn lives in McLean and will be a junior at Langley High School next year. She has been volunteering with special education children since she was a student at Cooper Middle School, and next week, she will participate in the 17th annual Best Buddies Leadership Conference at Indiana University.
"It will be the first time that I've ever been to anything that is just for leadership and people with disabilities," said Carlyn.
Best Buddies is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization that is dedicated to enhancing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities by providing them with job opportunities and one-on-one relationships. The Best Buddies program opened its first Virginia chapters in May 2005. Carlyn joined the program at Langley High School last year. Students who are officers in their school's Best Buddies program may register for the conference.
"They have to fund-raise for it," said Susan Garvey, Best Buddies State Director for Virginia. "We pay for three-fourths of it –– we pay for their airfare, food, room and board, but they have to raise money for their registration fee, which is $250."
AT THE CONFERENCE, students learn how to manage their own chapters of Best Buddies. Leadership skills are taught through seminars, workshops, lectures from guest speakers, and many other activities.
"The purpose of the conference is to teach them how to run a successful chapter, how to work with people with disabilities, how to fund-raise, and how to have fun," said Garvey. "It's also a networking opportunity to meet other kids from Best Buddies programs around the country and the world."
The upcoming conference will bring together 1,500 students from 25 countries over 18 states. The conferences are themed –– this year's is "a safari."
"It's a lot, but it's so organized," said Garvey. "They break the kids up by high school and college, and then they break them up into male and female dorms."
Carlyn said she is a little nervous about attending the conference.
"I haven't been away from home like this before, so it's a whole new thing, but I think it's going to be a good thing," she said. "They teach chapter presidents how to be the best leader that you can be within our school."
AT LANGLEY High School, there are a number of students with a variety of special education needs. Carlyn said that she primarily works with students who have autism or who have Down Syndrome. As a volunteer, Carlyn accompanies the students on outings such as bowling and mall trips. They also work together on special projects.
"We did a photography project where the kids and their buddy pairs took pictures together and then we did a gallery," said Carlyn.
Because Carlyn has been a special education volunteer since she was in middle school, she has grown up with many of the special education students with whom she works.
"I've known them since elementary school — some of them are my age, and some of them are older," said Carlyn. "They're all really, really wonderful, and I've gotten to be really good friends with them."
In fact, Carlyn said that one of the most rewarding aspects of being in the Best Buddies program is the fact that one of her close friends is someone she met through her volunteer work.
"She is positive all the time and enthusiastic and wonderful, and hanging out with her is more like having fun," said Carlyn.
Carlyn said that she has also found Langley High School to be a good venue for the Best Buddies program.
"We have really good parent support, and really good support within the school," she said.
Carlyn plans on becoming a special education teacher after she graduates from college. She is hoping to go to school somewhere in Virginia so that she will not be too far away from home.
HER MOTHER, Wendy Mueller, said that it has been incredible to watch her daughter grow up to be so involved in "something so meaningful."
"I couldn't be more proud that this is her passion, and it's something that she's discovered all on her own," said Wendy Mueller. "She just has such a lovely way with people in general, and she's even had some of the teaching professionals comment on how well she works with the kids at school."
Mueller said that when Carlyn was a peer tutor at Cooper Middle School, she went out of her way to accommodate the needs of each student.
"She actually did some work on the side with one of the kids whose mom had a scheduling problem," said Mueller. "She would help him out after school and he would come home with Carlyn."
Carlyn's younger sister Hayley Mueller, 13, is currently a student at Cooper Middle School. Already a peer tutor, Hayley seems poised to follow in the footsteps of her older sister.
"She went to the Best Buddies meeting with us last Friday, and she was surprised to learn that there hasn't been any effort to start a Best Buddies club at Cooper, so I think we may see her getting involved in that," said Wendy Mueller.