`Buddies' program lauded

Special-education students gain a friend, develop self-esteem

March 11, 2007|By SUSAN GVOZDAS | SUSAN GVOZDAS,Special to The Sun

The $200,000 allocated to Best Buddies in the proposed $5.2 billion state education budget might not seem like much. For Kelly Smither-Kemp, a 14-year-old with mild retardation, the line item is huge.

Best Buddies, which pairs special-education students with students in general education, is Kelly's social lifeline.

In her general- and special-education classes at Magothy River Middle School in Arnold, Kelly struggles to make friends, said her mother, Rene Smither of Cape St. Claire.

Through the Best Buddies chapter, one of three in county schools, Kelly has bonded with fellow seventh-grader Ericka Landeck.

"She's my best friend," Kelly said.

Kelly and the state director for Best Buddies asked state senators Monday to maintain the same level of funding this year.

The money pays for 79 middle and high schools to run the program, which involves more than 3,000 students, said Christian Metzger, state director of Best Buddies. (Maryland's Best Buddies program also has 16 college chapters that are funded separately.)

Although there is a waiting list for schools, Best Buddies did not want to ask for more money as legislators struggle to deal with a deficit, Metzger said. Gov. Martin O'Malley's office projects structural deficits of more than $1 billion in each of the next four years.

Kelly stood close to Ericka during the visit to the Miller Senate Office Building. After the hearing, Kelly and Ericka skipped to the steps of the State House to take pictures with Metzger and other Best Buddies staffers. The girls went out to dinner with Kelly's mother to celebrate her testimony, which had Kelly waking up at 2 a.m. for the past week.

"She was nervous," Smither said. "She practiced [her speech] in the bathtub."

At least once a week, Kelly and Ericka meet to talk, play a game or share lunch. The two try to make designs with magnetic pieces, Ericka said.

"Sometimes it falls apart, but we don't give up until we get it right," Kelly said.

Magothy River Middle, Broadneck High and Brooklyn Park Middle have Best Buddies chapters. Formed four years ago with a $1,000 state grant, Magothy River's chapter operates by getting financial support from teachers' funds allotted through the Parent Teacher Student Organization.

The chapter has 12 general-education and eight special-education students as members. Although some students don't have buddies, they help out at events. The chapter has monthly get-togethers and sometimes takes field trips to go bowling or visit stores.

Metzger contacted Magothy's chapter to find a student to testify because the school is so close to Annapolis and the chapter regularly schedules events, said Lee Lougee, a speech-language pathologist who oversees Magothy's Best Buddies chapter.

The program has an impact on more than the special-education students, Lougee said. General education students develop a sense of responsibility and leadership skills, she said.

"All of the students are developing their self-esteem and their confidence by having a true friend and by being a part of this club," Lougee said.

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