Source: Indys Child Parenting Magazine

The Best of Buddies
Forging friendships across differences

by Carrie Bishop

September 01, 2013

Relationships don’t come easy for kids with autism. Social skills require real, ongoing work. So when an opportunity comes along for these kids to practice social interaction and build a true friendship with a neurotypical peer, it’s a good thing. Best Buddies is creating this kind of good thing for kids across the state.

Best Buddies is an international nonprofit organization with a mission to provide opportunities for friendship, employment and leadership for people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities. Though the group does not have a jobs program in Indiana, the organization is going strong with 43 high school chapters, 19 middle school chapters, 15 college chapters and three promoters chapters whose members act as advocates for the disabilities rights movement.

A major focus of the organization is pairing kids who have special needs with typically developing peers to facilitate friendships. That’s what piqued the interest of Kelsey Fox, 18, of Noblesville.

Fox had volunteered for Down Syndrome Indiana her eighth grade year and wanted to continue her volunteer work to help others as she transitioned into St. Theodore Guerin High School. No Best Buddies chapter had yet been established at her school, so she got the ball rolling. Soon she was president of her school’s chapter, which was paired with The Independence Academy of Indiana, a school that specializes in education for students with high-functioning autism and Asperger syndrome.

Fox’s buddy was James Le Vay and they were paired together all four years. The way she sees it, she and James basically went through high school together, albeit at separate schools. “It was a lot of fun. We did so many fun activities. I gained a lot of friends through Best Buddies. I consider all the buddies as friends. They were part of my high school career,” she said.

The kids involved in Fox’s chapter did things kids their age typically do. They went bowling, had movie nights – there was even a Best Buddies prom. Mostly though, Fox says they all just hung out and talked.

Fox gained friends and leadership skills and believes James gained much the same. “I think it was just another chance to meet more people. Their school is really small and it’s always good to get to know other people, especially people who are different from you so you can learn. It’s the same with Guerin,” she said.

James’ mom, Susan Le Vay, believes the experience allowed her son to have more exposure to students without autism and helped him feel more supported and understood in the larger community. Getting to see her son widen his circle of friends was also meaningful to her.

Le Vay, who also happens to be the director of curriculum and instruction at The Independence Academy of Indiana, feels Best Buddies is an important organization for kids. “The Best Buddies program does more than connect students in friendship. It educates students and the larger community about people with special needs and encourages acceptance and understanding. This program is mutually beneficial because it enriches the lives of everyone involved,” she said.

This is a definite truth for Fox, who says the experience changed her life. “I’m always going to be volunteering and doing something [to help others] the rest of my life. And with James, we are still going to hang out,” she said.

Though Fox leaves behind the chapter she founded four years ago at Guerin, she plans to continue volunteering for Best Buddies while she attends Ball State University.