Mary Beth Sallee, Reporter
Jobe Publishing, Inc.
When one hears the word disability, it’s easy to judge someone based upon what they are not able to do instead of what they can do.
But Barren County High School (BCHS) is working to change that aspect one person – and one buddy – at a time.
Best Buddies at Barren County High School is a branch of Best Buddies International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating opportunities for one-to-one friendships, leadership development, integrated employment, and inclusive living for those with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
While Best Buddies International was established in 1989 by Anthony Kennedy Shriver, Best Buddies at BCHS was established in 2017 by former student Dulce Sanchez.
Sanchez wanted to begin the Best Buddies club as a way to break down barriers and preconceived notions within the walls of BCHS. Sanchez also had a very personal reason for wanting the club: her first cousin, Kathy, has Down Syndrome. With the help of MSD teacher Katelyn Emberton, Sanchez was able to establish Best Buddies at BCHS.
Best Buddies was immediately successful at the school, as Sanchez’s cousin, Kathy, became the club’s president and was also voted homecoming queen by her peers in 2018.
With resonating support, Best Buddies at BCHS still continues today. The club’s key focus of inclusion also continues: that all people, regardless of their abilities or disabilities, have the right to be respected and appreciated as valuable members of the school and community.
Emberton, who is also the Best Buddies teacher advisor, stated that the school’s club provides social activities, leadership roles, and friendships for students with and without disabilities.
“It’s created friendships that otherwise wouldn’t exist,” Emberton said of the club. “It’s brought students into my classroom that have become such lifelong friends to myself and my students. Many of them hang out outside of school and continue to even after graduation. Best Buddies gives us an opportunity to gather with like-minded individuals who have a heart for inclusion and spreading their knowledge and passions with others.”
“We’ve brought more awareness to other disabilities that are less frequently talked about,” Emberton added. “Autism and Down Syndrome are frequently discussed when you think about celebrating differences, but there are so many others to celebrate. We’ve brought attention and awareness to children and adults who are nonverbal, who have traumatic brain injury, Dandy Walker Syndrome, and seizure disorders.”
Not only has Best Buddies brought disability and inclusion awareness to BCHS, but to the community as well.
“Being involved in community events prompts people to ask questions about the organization, which is what we want to promote inclusion and bring awareness,” Emberton explained. “We’ve had wonderful students involved in the program since we created it who develop such deep passion for what Best Buddies stands for. Two of our former students are now in college pursuing their undergraduate degrees in Special Education because of their experiences with our class and Best Buddies. The passion and love for inclusion is the ultimate gift and brings my teacher heart so much joy.”
Best Buddies at BCHS has also sold shirts with the phrases “Inclusion Matters” and “Celebrate Abilities” as a way to spread awareness.
“…We love to spread knowledge and awareness to others,” Emberton said. “Remember that just because someone is nonverbal, doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to say. Diversity doesn’t exist without inclusion. We all have something to learn from each other, and I learn something from my students every single day.”
In an additional way of celebrating their students’ abilities, Emberton and MSD Instructional Assistant Rachel Pace are also helping their students recognize their own abilities and the job opportunities that await in the future.
Emberton and Pace use a mannequin in the classroom that they dress with various clothing and uniforms to teach students about the various attires for work, weather, and even social events.
“Our classroom not only works on academics, but we also focus on daily living and vocational skills,” Emberton said. “The mannequin was a donation from a community member to work on those. We can discuss appropriate clothing for various weather conditions or social events. We also intend to utilize him to discuss various career opportunities. For example, (we) dress our mannequin as a chef for one week, then line up a Skype call with a community chef, look at virtual field trips in restaurants, practice various job tasks that a chef may perform.”
Students also utilize the Youth Service Center to help look for clothing to use temporarily on the mannequin.
“Our students will go ‘shop’ for appropriate clothing to wear or not to wear to certain occasions, as well as picking out clothing for certain jobs,” Pace said. “We plan to focus on a new career or occasion every week. Students will also wash and return the clothes to the Youth Service Center the following week.”
Incorporating this aspect in the classroom is a great way for students to be exposed to all available job options.
“It’s important for anyone to have a job they love,” Emberton said. “The earlier we can get exposure and work on fine-tuning those job-related tasks in their area of interest, the smoother the transition to work from school will be.”
“Students also need to be prepared for various occupations and the various forms of clothing and accessories that will be required,” Pace added. “Shopping for the clothing, as well as washing and returning the clothes, help students prepare for ending their time as a student and entering their time as an employee.”
Between Best Buddies at BCHS and incorporating inclusion within the classroom, Emberton’s hope is that both the club and community awareness to continue to grow.
“We have big goals for the future of our club and community,” Emberton said. “…Ask us questions. That’s the main thing I want people to know. We are such a fun group and so many people say the first place they go when they’re having a bad day is my classroom.”
It is not a person’s disabilities but rather their abilities that matter. And Best Buddies at Barren County High School is hoping to prove to their school and their community that disabilities are simply a matter of perception.
The future is inclusion. The future is for everyone.
For more information about the club, visit the Best Buddies at Barren County High School page on Facebook.Emberton and Pace are also accepting donated uniforms from various careers to utilize in their classroom.