High school students reach out to special needs teens

By  Andrew Santos, The Catholic Register
  • May 9, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - Nicole Alvarez would have never imagined spending her final year of high school initiating a program for students with physical and mental difficulties.

Yet despite the heavy grade 12 workload, Alvarez found herself starting the Best Buddies program at Francis Libermann Catholic Secondary School in Toronto.

The program enables students of every grade to spend some time with students who have physical or mental challenges.

Last fall, the Multiple Exceptionalities Developmentally Delayed (ME-DD) program began letting students with disabilities enter a regular high school setting with an altered curriculum.

After seeing these students for herself in the hallways, Alvarez noticed there was no support network in place to welcome and integrate them.

“I was compelled to make a difference,” Alvarez told The Catholic Register. “These students need support from their peers. We need to offer these students a lifeline instead of them being isolated.”

Her proposal to school staff and administration for a group to do just that budded into a full-fledged partnership between students, staff and the exceptional students in early December.

“The Best Buddies program reaches out not only to these students with special needs but to the entire school community,” she said.

“Francis Libermann has proven itself time and time again that we are a generous, welcoming and loving community. Any student who walks through our doors should feel like they’re right at home,” she said. “My hope is that this program will establish not only that but more.”

Alvarez helped introduce the program at a school-wide ClubFest, held for the first time at the end of February. Clubs and various ministries in the school showcased their talents and recruited new members. Best Buddies garnered enough support for Alvarez to start the ministry.

A target number of 10 club members are encouraged to attend meetings weekly. They eat lunch with students in the ME-DD program, play a game or simply spend time reading and interacting.

“The more time we spend together as a group and interact, the better it will be in the long run for these students and our entire community,” Alvarez concludes.

Eliza Chiminello-Lelli, the ME-DD program teacher, said she was thrilled at the idea of students taking interest in other members of the school community.

“The initiative that these students, particularly Nicole Alvarez, brought forth is astounding,” Chiminello-Lelli said. “These students have exemplified true leadership qualities. I’m proud of each and every single person involved in this group.”

“One girl in our group, Chelsea, has benefited greatly from the start of the Best Buddies program,” she said. “She has been able to communicate with her buddy outside of school hours and has built a wonderful friendship as a result.”

The group is looking forward to holding a picnic luncheon on the school’s soccer field.

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