Six years ago, Jaclyn Boyce and Ashley Saye, both special education teachers at Jones MS, saw a need at their school… their students with special needs needed opportunities to develop meaningful relationships with same-aged peers without exceptionalities. But, perhaps as important, the two teachers wanted to promote acceptance, inclusion, and awareness so that all students would feel respected and part of their school community. And so, the JMS Buddies Club was born.
In the Buddies Club, Big Buddies (regular education students) are paired with Little Buddies (students with autism and intellectual disabilities) for a range of activities. Big Buddies make a commitment to be involved for the entire year, and must complete an application and get teacher recommendations. Once a month, Big Buddies attend a before-school meeting for related training, such as how to communicate with Little Buddies, confidentiality, person-first language, disability etiquette, respectful language, basic information on varying disabilities, and event planning.
Both Big Buddies and Little Buddies attend monthly after-school events, such as trips to the bowling alley and the movies, or a visit to the Buford Corn Maze. “We try and create opportunities outside of school that [Little Buddies] may not otherwise be able to attend with a group of friends,” says Ms. Saye. But the students’ involvement isn’t restricted to those meeting times and events. Big Buddies visit the classrooms of their Little Buddies when they can, and they often drop by to walk their Little Buddies to homeroom, eat lunch together, and help with cooking activities or complete vocational tasks.
A schoolwide activity during Exceptional Children's Week in March is an important part of the teachers’ campaign to promote acceptance and inclusions for their students. As part of a national campaign, club members and advisors encourage everyone in the building to “take the pledge” to help end the use of the R-Word— Spread the Word to End the Word— and show respect for everyone in the school community. Those pledges are displayed on a giant banner at the school. In addition, daily messages are included on morning announcements, and, an advisement lesson during the week is planned around an awareness and acceptance theme.
The care and concern of the Big Buddies is an inspiration, says Ms. Saye. While the club was initially formed as a support for Little Buddies, she says involvement with the group has had a tremendous impact on students who are truly committed to being a Big Buddy. “They worry when [their Little Buddies] are sick. They worry when they are not at school. It's beautiful,” she says. “We have an amazing group of students in our Buddies Club who love, accept, and respect people with exceptionalities and they have made some wonderful friendships. It is very inspiring to see a group of middle school students so dedicated to our club.”
The club recently got a shout out in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.