Today, there are more than 20 Indiana middle schools, nearly 50 high schools and 16 colleges that have active Best Buddy chapters. Since 1995, Best Buddies schools and colleges have paired students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in one-to-one friendships with peer students. With the support of school faculty and Best Buddies staff, students and individuals with IDD’s lead and direct the chapters in their schools. The most recent addition to the current list of Best Buddies programs is the launch of a dual-school initiative involving the University High School and the Midwest Academy, both located in Carmel. The plan took a couple of years to develop simply because of the logistics of being able to implement a program that would be sustainable once it had been created. Chris Morrison, a math teacher and boy’s soccer coach at University High School, along and Bridget Lueken, director of student services for Midwest Academy, have partnered their efforts in bringing a Best Buddies program to their student bodies and are committed to the program’s long-term success. “I have done a lot of work with Special Olympics as basketball coach and volunteer and have participated in the Polar Plunge a few too many times,” Morrison said. “I attended the Best Buddies gala a few years ago and became a supporter thereafter. Until last year, we weren’t able to get involved here at University High School simply because we didn’t have the two populations at one location. After a period of exploration and with the support of our administration, the two headmasters from University High School and Midwest Academy got together, and it just generated from there. We had our Matching Party in November 2014. Between the two schools, we have the necessary population to support the Best Buddies program, and the geography of our schools works out well.” The two schools will organize a monthly meet-up or event so that the buddies and the associate buddies will have regular opportunities to interact and socialize. “We plan to alternate between our facilities,” Morrison explained. “We will co-host events at off-site venues as well. Last month we attended a Pacers game and we will have a skating party later this month. We work hard at creating fun and exciting monthly events.” A recently paired buddy, University sophomore Zoe Marks-Strauss, spoke about what meeting her buddy, Carson, has meant to her. “Our school made an announcement at one of our morning meetings and it was something that I was interested in,” Marks-Strauss stated. “I had heard about the Best Buddies program and wanted to get involved but hadn’t had the opportunity to. I went to the call out meeting and it just went from there. I found my buddy, Carson, who is a freshman at Midwest . Carson and I are planning to go out to the local parks and hang out especially when the weather gets nice. I feel that having a friendship that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and meeting new people that I might not usually befriend is a great opportunity.” An Associate Buddy and sophomore at University High School, Valerie Kraft, explained how she was most attracted to how the Best Buddies Program focuses on inclusion and giving back. “In middle school I knew what is like to be left out, not necessarily for the same reasons that kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities are left out, but I always felt like an outcast,” Kraft said. “I wanted to help give back to others who had the same experience as I had and to those who feel that they don’t always have the same opportunities or feel that they don’t have as many friends. I want them to feel that they are included. As an associate, I am not currently paired with a Buddy but I attend the events and meet up with other associate buddies.” According to Morrison, University High School had 25-30 students interest in signing up but there were only six students available for matching on Midwest Academy’s end. The Associate Buddies program allows these students to get involved without being paired. “It is a really neat program and it is fun to watch the kids interact and develop their friendships,” said Morrison. “I get so much from working with these kids and the joy that I get is hard to explain. Through this program, our students are exposed to even more experiences and it teaches them amongst other life skills, empathy and the importance of meaningful friendships.” Working in tandem with Morrison, Bridget Lueken described what the program has brought to her students at the Midwest Academy, a school that offers specialized education to students of all socio-economic backgrounds challenged by learning style differences such as attention deficit disorder, school anxiety and high functioning autism. “At the previous school that I was at, there was a thriving Best Buddies program that was a dual school program between Independence Academy in Broad Ripple and Guerin High School,” Lueken said. “That program was less challenging to set up because everyone at Independence has autism and that is a developmental disability. We have a few students that qualify as a Buddy, but a lot more students that really needed to increase their social circle here at Midwest. Many of these students are registering as Associate Buddies. I feel that the program is doing a lot of good and I think that after this year, the program will continue to grow, and we will host several more events. I know that the students who have been paired are really enjoying the communication that they are having with their buddies.” For more information about the Best Buddies program at either of these schools, please contact Chris Morrison at University High School or Bridget Lueken at Midwest Academy.