Best Buddies helps enhance lives of kids with disabilities

Finding new boundaries

March 30, 2007|By Lisa Tom | Lisa Tom,sun reporter

Katlyn Moore and Katie Honeycutt like to talk on the phone about their school - Glenelg High - music and their dogs. Katlyn often goes to Katie's house to watch television or play games.

"I [usually win] because I'm always a good player," said Honeycutt. Moore laughs off the remark. They embody an ordinary teenage friendship, except for one aspect - Honeycutt has cerebral palsy.

The two met as part of Best Buddies International, a nonprofit that aims to enhance the lives of people with intellectual disabilities with opportunities for one-to-one friendship and integrated employment.

Honeycutt's mother, Carol, says the program changed her daughter. "She used to be afraid to talk on the phone until Katlyn ... helped bring her out of her shell."

"I feel that the Best Buddies program is a means of helping children such as my daughter become as independent as they can be," she said.

In the high school program, a student with an intellectual disability is matched with a student without a disability as a buddy pair. Pairs commit to contacting one another once a week and spending time together twice a month for an academic year. The school chapter functions as a student-run club, holding events for the pairs once a month.

"I've heard a lot of feedback from parents that it really improves their special-education students' social abilities," said Casey Shaffer, a program manager for Best Buddies Maryland who oversees a number of counties, including Howard.

Howard County has nine chapters - eight high schools and one middle school - and all of them have been started within the past five years. There are 301 members countywide.

In response to this rapid growth, Best Buddies Maryland will sponsor the first Howard County Gala, an evening of dessert, dancing and recognition, from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. today at Reservoir High, which received Maryland's Best New Chapter Award last year.

"I want to reward the chapters for working so hard and being so successful in building friendships," Shaffer said.

Katie Proia has built one such friendship with fellow River Hill senior Judith Li.

"Last year at lunch I didn't have anybody to sit with until I did Best Buddies," Proia said. "I like having somebody to be with."

Proia's mother, Judy, said, "[Katie] has a little bit of trouble processing what she hears. ... So having somebody as a best buddy who's really taking an interest and is willing to maybe repeat something or talk to her on the side ... can make such a difference."

After studying together, Proia earned a B in English, the highest grade she has ever received in the subject. "I feel happy [with Judith]," Proia said.

Judy Proia shares the sentiment. "As a parent, I'm just so happy that [Katie] can go to [activities] and have someone there to hang out with and talk to," she said. "It makes her feel so much better about herself."

That socialization and group events contribute to important life skills, Shaffer said. "One thing I've heard from parents is that their students now have the confidence to make friends on their own," she said.

She added: "At one of my schools in Howard County, there was a student who came into the meetings and didn't speak. He could speak, but he didn't.

"And this year, I came to their Match Party in October, and I was stunned because he walked up to me and the adviser and said hi to us and shook [hands] and asked what game they were going to play. And he sat down at the table and everybody was talking to him.

"[His mother] said that ... she felt it was due to Best Buddies that her son is able to talk to his peers," Shaffer said.

Best Buddies also forces the general-education students to step outside their boundaries.

"I know in the beginning I was hesitant ... and honestly, I was coming to Best Buddies for my college [applications, but] you get through the disability and the awkwardness," Moore said. "You don't realize it, but you're probably helping yourself even more [than your buddy]."

Moore said she has learned compassion, patience and understanding from her friendship with Honeycutt.

"It's hard to explain. ... If I were to say, `Oh I have a headache,' most of my friends would be like, `Oh, yeah, me too,' and just go off," Moore said. "If I were to tell Katie I had a headache, she would ask me why and what's wrong."

Their favorite activity was the Glenelg High chapter's bowling event. "We weren't sure how Katie could do it because she has a physical disability, but the bowling alley provided a ramp where Katie could push the ball down the alley," Moore said.

"I myself am not a great bowler, and Katie ended up beating me," she said. "It's funny because I was trying really, really hard."

Said Honeycutt: "I felt like `yay, I won!'"

Moore also is a peer tutor at Glenelg High School, so she helps Honeycutt in a second-period cooking class.

After winning the Special Olympics silver medal in Japan in figure skating, Proia shared her expertise with Li when the River Hill High chapter went skating at Gardens Ice House in Laurel.

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