Best Buddies: Friendships Prosper Through Covid

When OPRF senior Paige Braun walked into her Best Buddies orientation in sixth grade, nerves overcame her, and the butterflies immediately started fluttering. 

“I had never met somebody with a disability,” Braun said. “To me, that was honestly overwhelming. I didn’t know how to interact with them.”

Now, Braun serves as vice president of the OPRF chapter of Best Buddies. “I didn’t know why (the buddies) were asking me so many questions about myself, but that’s how they connect,” she said. In the program, each member is paired with a ‘buddy,’ a student with special needs. 

As she grew more accustomed to the culture of the program, Braun, who has been an officer since her sophomore year, became a bigger advocate for students with disabilities, beginning to see them simply as friends in her life. “I don’t see (the buddies) any different than you or me,” she said. “I can honestly say that I would never have met or become close friends with all the buddies that I am close with now without the experience of Best Buddies and getting that opportunity to meet people who … come from such different backgrounds.”

Fawn Joyce, co-sponsor of the OPRF chapter, said that Best Buddies is vital in bringing the OPRF community together. “Our mission is inclusion and acceptance for all,” Joyce said. “If we were in school we would have a big basketball game that has our Special Olympics players against West Leyden … this is a tradition that we’ve been doing for 25 years.” Without COVID-19 restrictions, the entire OPRF student body would gather in the Fieldhouse during ‘Spirit Assemblies’ to watch the game.

The COVID-19 pandemic has completely altered the way the program operates. Monthly events and bi-weekly meetings must be held virtually, and this year’s Special Olympics basketball game has been canceled.

However, Braun said that it is important for the program to continue during COVID-19 times. “More than ever, individuals with disabilities are isolated,” she said. “It has always been a goal to make places more inclusive and for people with disabilities to be included in friend groups because time and time again, they are left out.” 

“Since everyone is physically isolated because of COVID, (Best Buddies) gives an outlet for those with and without disabilities to feel included … in such a difficult year, when everyone is already feeling left out and separated,” Braun said.

Nick Sawyer, a student with a disability, has been a part of Best Buddies since 2013. Sawyer said he loves “going to the movies, practicing for the talent show, and meeting new people” with his buddy. The Best Buddies Talent Show took place in late March. While Sawyer still enjoys meeting via Zoom with his buddy, he hopes they will be able to gather in person soon.

Joyce emphasized the common ‘Zoom fatigue,’ adding that the program has been trying to do more to keep students with disabilities engaged by working with members and officers to spice up their events. Among other things, they have hired a D.J., had a dance party, and even held a Halloween costume contest. 

“The desire to want this club to keep running all stems from the current student body,” Joyce said. “Best Buddies has continued to run, continued to have a hundred kids in each ‘Zoom party’ that we have every month … everyone, disabilities or not, really craves social interaction.”