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Student chapter focuses on fostering understanding

By Staff | Feb 5, 2019

TIFFANY REPECKI Students from The Sanibel School are all smiles as they take part in the first meeting of the newly-formed Best Buddies chapter on Jan. 31. They spent the afternoon getting to know one another, making Valentine's cards and enjoying cookies.

The aim of a new club at The Sanibel School is to bring together students with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities to promote friendships and understanding of one another’s differences.

On Jan. 31, the school’s newly-formed Best Buddies chapter held its first meeting.

“The goal of the club is bring children with disabilities and those without disabilities together, but under the umbrella of friendship and showing kindness, acceptance and cooperation,” Robin Lear, an ESE and intervention specialist at the school and one of the club’s faculty advisors, said.

“So that we can begin to understand everyone through strengths and weakness, instead of disabilities and non-disabilities,” she said, explaining that the members will not be identified and treated as one or the other, and the club is not designed to serve as a “care” program. “They’ll just connect as friends.”

About two dozen interested youths gathered in the cafetorium for the first meeting. Lear and Greg Bergamo, another ESE and intervention specialist and the chapter’s other faculty advisor, planned out Valentine’s Day-themed and ice breaker activities for the students to get to know each other better.

TIFFANY REPECKI Faculty advisors Greg Bergamo and Robin Lear, left, with educational para Laurie Marino and Katie Vazquez, program manager for the Fort Myers office of Best Buddies Southwest Florida.

Seventh-grader Kaitlyn Ricciardella was selected as the club’s president.

Bergamo explained that the idea is for the club’s activities and programs beyond the first meeting to be member-driven, and for the relationships between the students to blossom naturally and unforced.

“We want the friendships to be established between the kids,” he said. “And we’re a Leader in Me school here at Sanibel, so we try to develop those skills through a variety of activities.”

Bergamo noted that there will be some mentoring of the elementary students.

“It’s an opportunity for the middle-school students to develop their leadership skills and fill volunteer hours they need for promotions and grades,” he said.

TIFFANY REPECKI On Jan. 31, The Sanibel School held its first meeting for student interested in joining the newly-formed Best Buddies chapter.

Best Buddies is an international organization and is active in all 50 states in the United States. In Florida, it is represented in 212 elementary, middle and high schools and on college campuses. Best Buddies Southwest Florida operates in seven cities, including chapters in 14 Lee County schools.

“We’re excited to be able to reach a new city,” Katie Vazquez, program manager for the Fort Myers office with Best Buddies Southwest Florida, said of the new club on Sanibel. “It’s so important.”

She explained that inclusion for students with disabilities is improving in schools.

“But the students in general education classes and special education classes still see each other as different,” Vazquez said, adding that Best Buddies aims to erase that lingering distinction.

Her office reached out to the school in May about forming a chapter.

Robin Lear

“We decided this is perfect because we are servicing more and more children with disabilities here at the school, so this is a great avenue to try to build some bridges and develop understanding,” Lear said.

Bergamo estimated that between 5 percent and 10 percent of the current student population has a disability that falls under some category, whether it be educational, behavioral or medical.

“Some have been identified through formal testing, other have educational needs or require special programming,” Lear added. “That’s how we like to look at it – as needs instead of disabilities.”

In setting up the Sanibel club, Best Buddies had to create a new classification.

“This is the first middle school-elementary school charter in Florida,” Bergamo said.

Greg Bergamo

The club members will have four meetings during the school year.

Lear noted that Bergamo and she will not be the only adults overseeing the program as others at the school will take part, especially with the children who are not as verbal or are not able to connect.

“We have some peer professionals in the building who will be able to participate,” she said.

Best Buddies hosts community activities for the chapters, like swim parties, sock hops, service projects, bowling nights and more. On April 6, the annual Best Buddies Friendship Walk will be held in Estero.

“One of the big drives of the club is understanding that no matter what we look like or what we do, we all have feelings and to keep feelings in consideration when we interact with one another,” Lear said.

Students interested in joining Best Buddies can get a registration form at the front office or speak to Lear or Bergamo. For more information, email robinlle@leeschools.net or gregoryjbe@leeschools.net.

For more about the Best Buddies organization, visit www.bestbuddies.org.