Prairie Wind Middle School students ask: Will you be my buddy?
Best Buddies is a national organization with a mission to end all forms of isolation for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
PERHAM — School is where young minds develop and where children spend most of their days. Because of that, the importance of creating a welcoming environment is often highlighted by many different school districts. The Perham-Dent Public School District, in particular, has made yet another large step toward inclusivity: the Best Buddies program.
Now available for student participation at Prairie Wind Middle School, Best Buddies is a national organization with a mission to end all forms of isolation for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). At the Perham middle school, staff and students alike are working to combat this isolation by helping to create one-on-one friendships between a student with an IDD and one without. The program works to keep these pairs together every single year moving forward.
"(We want to) create a more inclusive environment at our school," said middle school counselor Katie Olsen. "I think it's important because we want to bring awareness and acceptance. I just think it's a really cool opportunity for students — to a group — trying to provide different fun activities for them to get to show that all students belong."
The district originally became aware of the program when they were approached by KLN Family Brands, who viewed a presentation from Best Buddies regarding partner program fundraising. KLN staff were so impressed by the presentation that they brought the idea directly to the district. Eighth grade geography teacher Deanna Kovash, Principal Jim Kennedy, Olsen and others immediately thought that it would be an excellent idea to pursue.
So, after meeting with a facilitator based out of the Twin Cities, Olsen and Kovash began to spearhead the development of Best Buddies at PWMS while also making sure to consult with special education teachers. Participating kids filled out a survey, and teachers provided input. From there, pairs of buddies were formed.
"I think the intention of what the best buddy is you're a role model. You're a leader. But you're also a good friend," PWMS Principal Jim Kennedy said. "I think that's the biggest thing. And it's not just a friend for this program. Hopefully, that carries through outside of the meetings and throughout middle school and into high school. It's a really cool opportunity that our students have to be a leader in our school."
About once a month, Best Buddies meets during the school day in order to be accessible to as many students as possible. They start with some fun games to get the students involved, moving and laughing. From there, they break into different groups with get-to-know-you activities and other activities. One group is working on distributing birthday cards to their fellow members. Another is even designing t-shirts.
Though the group is still brand new with three of those monthly meetings under their belt, they're already planning a Christmas event and a possible future social media presence. As the program continues to develop at PWMS, Kovash and Olsen both hope to see it become more student-led down the line.
"I think we were worried this summer that we weren't going to have anybody and then, the first meeting, we had a roomful, like we moved from a classroom because the classroom was too small," Kovash said. "We didn't have enough chairs. That to me just says something about the good spirit that kids have and just being able to use that good spirit in good ways in our school. That really excites me."
The program currently has about 35-40 students participating in it, which has blown both Kovash and Olsen away. All students who wish to participate fill out a form. This way, the organization is able to make sure those participating are safe and committed individuals.
"To know that the conversation (between students) happened and will continue to happen and that kids are going to show up is amazing," Kovash said.
As a counselor, Olsen views building social connections as an important real-world skill. By facilitating an environment in which students can bond with one another, they're hoping to just create yet another opportunity for students to be successful in the world post-education.
Kennedy mentioned that Perham High School is also hoping to implement the program into its building in the future. For more information on Best Buddies, go to bestbuddies.org . If your child is interested in attending the monthly meetings, get in contact with Kovash at Prairie Wind Middle School. The main office can be reached at 218-346-1700.
"I do feel like it's important to teach kids about purpose and value," Kennedy concluded, describing the importance of Best Buddies. "I think that every student has value."