Every morning during the school year, rising Marshall High School senior Maggie O’Brien picks up her friend Maddie Leasure for school. The two also hang out almost every weekend and have known one another for years.
"I have had a relationship with Maddie since elementary school," said O’Brien about her friend who is a rising junior. Thanks to O’Brien’s efforts three years ago, she and Leasure and more than 20 other friends have found a way to spend more time together during and after school hours. O’Brien started the Marshall High School chapter of Best Buddies, an organization with a mission of enhancing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities by providing opportunities for one-to-one friendships and integrated employment.
Club sponsor and third-year special education teacher Kevin Wallace said Best Buddies go to bowling alleys together and attended a Monster Truck Rally at the Verizon Center. The mission of the club, said Wallace, is "to create environments where people don’t feel secluded."
Last year there were 12 established pairs in the program, although other students joined whenever they could. Wallace said that trips to the Verizon Center, or Washington, D.C., in general, are a great opportunity for students in special education to do simple everyday tasks, such as buying train tickets.
"IT’S ALWAYS a good thing when my daughter has an opportunity to be a part of the community," said Tana Leasure, Maddie’s mother.
She said Best Buddies is also an opportunity for non-disabled students to get to know their peers who are disabled, and to see that there are a lot of similarities between them. "It’s interaction, and Marshall does that very well," said Tana Leasure. "Diversity is embraced at Marshall."
Tana Leasure said the club "is not about being a mentor, it’s about friendships."
Last year members of the club took pictures and created an 87-page scrapbook highlighting activities such as making friendship bracelets for peers in Venezuela. For its efforts, the club was awarded the "Outstanding Chapter" award at the Leadership Conference for Best Buddies International at Indiana University.
"We worked hard for it," said O’Brien, the chapter president. "It’s definitely a big honor." She added that a lot of the members of the club haven’t yet found out about the award, because many are on summer vacations. However, the club’s officers are very excited about the award.
O’Brien is certain that she will continue to devote time to Best Buddies, wherever she attends college. "I want to participate in Best Buddies in college," she said. However, O’Brien has another year at Marshall before she goes to college. She hopes members of the club will develop new ideas of how to spend time together, while maintaining their commitment to current activities.
Wallace said he would encourage more trips to the Verizon Center. "I would like to see a couple of more big events," he said.