Life is tough, and everyone needs a friend to lean on. Sometimes, though, finding and cultivating friendships is hard...especially for those with disabilities. There’s an organization out there aimed to help.
Best Buddies began in 1989 with the goal to end social, physical and economic isolation of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Now in its 30th year, the nonprofit 501(c)(3) program can be found in all 50 states and more than 55 countries around the world.
Last fall, Stephanie Chaon, Germantown Hills resident and branch manager of Goodfield State Bank in Metamora, was asked to go to the annual Best Buddies gala held in Peoria Heights.
At the time, she really didn’t know much about the program, only that her friend’s autistic son was an ambassador and he was involved with helping at the event.
The gala was somewhat of a game changer for Chaon, and she still gets teary-eyed talking about that emotional night and the testimonials she heard.
“These kids got up and spoke...one kid tried to commit suicide, and this Best Buddies program really helped him feel like he had worth,” she remembered. “If kids have disabilities, they’re not spoken to a lot of times at school, they’re just pushed aside. That breaks my heart. I wouldn’t want to not be talked to all day. How does that make you feel as a child? Especially if their peers are making fun of them or looking at them, or not looking at them, seeing them,” she said.
The gala sparked a passion in Chaon. After witnessing the positive impact the organization had on these kids and how happy they were, she knew she had to raise as much awareness as she could. She got in touch with the Germantown Hills School District where her daughter attends, and Metamora Township High School.
Both schools were extremely open to the idea of starting the Best Buddies program. Chaon said the program was free for the elementary and middle schools, but the high school would have to pay $350 in dues.
Jake Cooper, a special education teacher at MTHS knew about Best Buddies, and a few years ago the school started a similar program called “The Flock”. This year, though, Cooper was instrumental in merging it with the nationally affiliated Best Buddies organization.
“Jake Cooper was the voice behind it...he really, really wanted it and he fought for it,” said Chaon.
In the end, Chaon was granted a sponsorship that helped pay the $350.
MTHS currently has 33 student mentors and students with special needs in the program. They have formed a council, and so far this year, the group has hosted a game night, and a sensory-friendly Homecoming dance on September 28, before the official Homecoming dance began.
Cooper said they’re also planning movie and bowling nights, and a haunted house night this month.
“The most rewarding part of this group is seeing high school leaders becoming amazing mentors and true buddies to students with special needs,” said Cooper. “Watching these relationships grow beyond the group is so awesome.”
Ten Best Buddies programs were opened in August, the most Central Illinois has ever opened at once. MTHS and Germantown Hills are among 35 schools in Central Illinois participating in Best Buddies and there’s more schools slated to start in January.
The relationships go beyond school age, though. The Best Buddies Organization also helps those with intellectual and developmental disabilities advocate for themselves and help find employment in the community. Chaon is buddies with Tim Jackson, a 34-year-old Peoria resident. She meets with him a couple times a month.
Somewhere along the line, Chaon’s help in raising awareness for this organization got her nominated for Champion of the Year. As a Champion candidate, Chaon has eight weeks to fundraise for Best Buddies, and that ends on November 1...the day of the gala. The goal is to raise as much money as she can for the organization, but she set her goal at $3,000. As of the beginning of October, she already raised more than $1700.
She’s hosting a fundraising event at Rhythm Kitchen in Peoria on October 23, and then of course, the gala on November 1 to be held at Trailside Event Center in Peoria Heights.
Tickets to the gala are $75 a piece, and that includes dinner, open bar, a live and silent auction, dueling pianos, and a night filled with celebrating friendship and inclusion. The Champion of the
Year will also be crowned.
“It’s really exciting, I’m just excited to be part of it,” said Chaon.
To read more about Best Buddies, or to help Chaon reach her goal, visit http://www.bestbuddieschampion.org/centralillinois/supporting/#stephaniechaon.