PERSONAL JOURNEY: Best Buddies at Miamisburg HS creates lifelong friends

Senior Olivia Taylor wanted all students to feel included.

It is standard nowadays for students with special needs and disabilities to be integrated into regular classrooms. But this integration doesn’t always fix the issue of some students feeling isolated and alone, without true friendships.

Olivia Taylor, 17 and a senior at Miamisburg High School set out to change that a few years ago, when she approached her teacher, Amanda DiGiovanna, about the issue.

“I realized that some students with developmental disabilities had a hard time fitting in and making and keeping friends,” Taylor said. “I wanted everyone to feel included.”

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Taylor’s inspiration was her best friend from childhood, whose younger sister has a disability. Taylor said her friend’s sister seemed so happy in school and she wondered if there was a reason. It turned out that Kettering City Schools, where her friend attended, has a program designed to pair a student with an intellectual disability (IDD) with a student who does not, and Taylor was intrigued.

“Olivia told me her story and how she wanted to create a program at Miamisburg,” DiGiovanna, a multiple disabilities teacher for nine years at Miamisburg High School, said. “I mentioned that when I was in college at Miami University, they had an established ‘Best Buddies’ program.”

Best Buddies International can be best described as a “friendship club,” that fosters one to one relationships between individuals with and without an IDD. The program, which is the world’s largest organization dedicated to ending social, physical and economic isolation of people with IDD, is designed to help break through social barriers during the teenage years, a pivotal time in a young person’s life. There are 27 Best Buddy chapters in Ohio in 15 counties. It was originally founded in 1987 at Georgetown University by Anthony Kennedy Shriver.

“Our program in Ohio provides an opportunity for people to make new connections,” DiGiovanna said. “Since we started the program, we have grown from 10students participating to more than 30 today.”

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The Miamisburg group hosts monthly events throughout the year, both in and out of school. Both Taylor and DiGiovanna describe it as a “big success” and say they hope the program eventually will include the middle school as well.

“We start out letting students know about the program through announcements and social media,” Taylor said. “Then we do interviews so we can figure out similar interests, whether or not they have transportation and things like that.”

The program also offers email matching for students who wish to correspond with one another regularly. Students are usually paired as freshman and stay together throughout all four years of high school. For Taylor, the program has made a huge difference, because she has gained a new friend and best buddy, Andy Turner, who is also now a senior. The pair has enjoyed going on outings together like bowling and dining out at favorite restaurants.

“Best Buddies is great,” said Turner. “It’s about how to get people together so they can have fun doing things.”

For DiGiovanna, the program is a dream come true, since she developed a close bond with her own “best buddy” while in college. In fact, that buddy, Donna, just celebrated her 60th birthday with a party that DiGiovanna attended.

“Donna came to my wedding,” DiGiovanna said. “There are truly lifelong friendships that are made because of this program.”

Taylor now serves as the Miamisburg Best Buddies president and Turner is the director. When they each move on after graduation, DiGiovanna will be interviewing upcoming seniors already in the program to take over the roles.

“Students already in the program end up being our best marketing tools,” DiGiovanna said. “They recommend or refer students they think would be good buddies and others who may need a buddy.”

Since the inception of Best Buddies at Miamisburg High School, DiGiovanna said she has noticed more interaction in the hall between classes and more students greeting each other and being kind to one another.

After graduation, Turner plans to work at a pet store as he is especially fond of dogs. As for Taylor, her plan is to attend college at the University of Louisville to study education.

“I’ve always really liked kids,” Taylor said. “I really want to work with elementary kids.”

Turner sees the experiences with Best Buddies as being life-changing.

“I would love to see more chapters of Best Buddies,” Taylor said. “The program is great for everyone involved but it really helps those who are nervous and shy to join clubs or go to events. Best Buddies gives them someone to talk to all the time and they get to do things they may not have ever done otherwise.”

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