By Mary Cathrine Karcich, Contributing Writer
Westborough – The Best Buddies program at Westborough High School is more than just a club – it’s a community.
A local iteration of an international organization, Best Buddies creates opportunities for inclusion for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). The chapter at WHS works to support the cause as students without IDDs get matched with someone with an IDD, their buddy.
Program advisor Rebecca Peixoto noted the importance of this community for students with IDD, describing it as “the highlight of their high school experience.”
Best Buddies, a favorite program
Whether in class or the cafeteria, Best Buddies participants with IDDs have friends who want to engage with them. Their peers prioritize those relationships by remaining inclusive and putting in the time and effort necessary to do so.
Buddies also nurture friendships with one another outside of school with activities like Special Olympics, basketball and soccer.
Club co-presidents Joseph Bellofatto and Rachel Fredman have been with Best Buddies throughout high school.
Bellofatto, a senior, met his buddy Hunter during their freshman year and they’ve been close ever since. Fredman, also a senior, has focused on establishing meaningful relationships and strengthening connections.
Backed by a team of student officers, those leaders help to instill kindness and goodwill at WHS — something that is even more crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 presents challenges
Bellofatto recognized that, outside of COVID, individuals with IDD already experienced isolation from their peers. That problem only got worse with the coronavirus. So, the club stayed proactive and went the extra mile to maintain the relationships that had been made.
“We weren’t going to sit still,” Bellofatto said.
Adapting, Best Buddies found ways to bring people together through virtual trivia, games and scavenger hunts. In February, the club then hosted a much-appreciated Special Olympics Bocce Ball Tournament — its first in-person event since the pandemic began.
Best Buddies focuses on education
Every March, Best Buddies hosts a week-long campaign to support “Spread the Word,” a global movement focused on inclusion of all individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
This year, the club decorated the school’s halls, sold candy through a partnership with the Westborough candy store, the Sugar Shack, and encouraged people to wear blue to show support.
Other activities included a video produced by Fredman giving insight on the R-word. There was work with school P.E. teachers to initiate conversations about inclusion in sports. The club also heard from Frank, a comedian with Down Syndrome who delivered a presentation over Zoom.
Fredman described it as “heartwarming” to see the school come together in support of the cause.
Program aims to live up to slogan
Best Buddies truly is more than just a club. In fact, that’s their chapter’s slogan, according to Bellofatto.
For Fredman, this all has been rewarding, creating situations for her to connect with individuals with IDDs.
“I get to see the amazing personalities and interesting qualities, and most people miss out by making quick assumptions,” she said.
There are personal connections, too. Bellofatto’s older sister, Gia, has Down Syndrome. He’s seen how significant friendship is to someone who may have limited social opportunities.
“Gia’s friends are so important to her and they changed her world. I always wanted to make that impact.”
Looking ahead, Bellofatto recognizes the need to “make [Best Buddies] a little more uncomfortable.
He wants to “push the bounds of our club” so inclusion is can be found throughout Westborough High School.