The Ottumwa Courier

October 18, 2013

Finding a friend

By MARK NEWMAN
Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — If you're shy around strangers, an introduction to a new friend may help reduce that discomfort.

Megan Black, a senior at Ottumwa High School said the school's new "Best Buddies" program pairs a special education student with a general education student.

"I see special ed. students in the hall walking by themselves without any [students] to socialize with," Megan said. "I feel like if they saw that, a lot of kids wouldn't know how to approach someone."

Special Education teacher Laura Schwab said her students, who are in "intensive support" classes, may not appreciate being suddenly approached by an assertive stranger.

"But if we can introduce them, and pair them up with a buddy, that can work," Schwab said.

Megan recently went to a leadership conference about the Best Buddies program. And helping get the project off the ground is a good leadership exercise, Schwab said. Between a Bright Ideas grant from the Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation and assistance from Iowa Safe and Supportive Schools, she said, OHS was able to fund the project. It's worth the effort, she added.

"It helps my kids with social skills, it helps them integrate themselves into the greater community," she said. "We want them to leave high school with the confidence to be involved in the community."

For students with intellectual or developmental disabilities, which is who Best Buddies is designed for, success may look different than it looks for their non-disabled peers. For some youngsters, starting a conversation with a newcomer may be "a win," she said. The goal is to get these youngsters to be as independent as possible and achieve what is 100 percent of their potential for them.

General education students may be starting to see the difference they can make. Megan said she's getting more peers asking about being part of Best Buddies.

"I think there are 34 students involved, right?" she asked Schwab.

"Yes, 17 matches, so 34 total," Schwab said. "I've seen the [traditional] special ed. lunch table broken up some. Students come and talk to them, [or] they are at another table eating with their buddy. It's so good for my kids. Just a simple 'Hi' in the hallways can mean so much to my students."

Best Buddies is having a kickoff and parent information night at Bridge City Bowl from 6-8 p.m. Sunday October 27. Information about the national nonprofit organization can be found at www.bestbuddies.org

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark