Frontier teens create community through Best Buddies program

  • Senn

For The Recorder
Tuesday, March 06, 2018

A group of Frontier students led by Isabella Senn of Greenfield are bringing together average students with special needs students to help create community via a program called Best Buddies.

“One of the main goals of Best Buddies is to help special needs students have more social interaction,” said Senn who is the school’s chapter president. Best Buddies is an international program with chapters throughout Massachusetts. Senn, 17, and a senior, became involved with the program a year and a half ago. “Special education is a career goal for me. I’ve known some of these students since elementary school and they became more and more separated out over time,” said Senn.

Laura Sienkiewitz is the faculty advisor for the Best Buddies program, which was started up at Frontier three years ago. “I tried to start a chapter more than once but there were too many in our area,” said Sienkiewitz. Senn helps organize activities and is an ambassador for the program, working to bring in and encourage students to participate. “I try to get them to look past their cellphones and engage with someone’s life to create something positive for someone else,” she said. Senn organized a monthly lunch where students who have been matched up in the program also play games or watch movies together. “Recently, we made cookies together, for example,” said Sienkiewitz. Senn also works to set up fundraisers for the group, such as a recent spaghetti dinner. “This program has helped me learn leadership and practical business skills. It’s helping me to have more confidence and ability to talk to people,” said Senn.

Sienkiewitz said the special needs students in the program have a wide range of functional abilities. Some, for example, use technology to communicate. “The program provides the opportunity for these students to feel as if they belong to the school community,” she said.

Interaction is key in Best Buddies. “They (special needs students) are still teenagers and they want to be able to socialize and hang out with friends, just like any other teen,” said Senn.

One participant, Stephanie Sisson, 18, of Greenfield has been in the program since the chapter opened at Frontier. “It’s good for kids to get to know people outside of their class and meet more people they aren’t familiar with,” said Sisson, who also works at the Deerfield Elementary School cafeteria and is involved with Massachusetts Rehabilitative Services.

“We’ve had some really good matches. Some of the students become very close,” said Senn.

The program has 15 students to 15 buddies and a handful of student volunteers who help with events and activities. Sisson was involved two years ago with her buddy for a fashion show that was held in Northampton at Thorne’s Marketplace. Matches are decided by committee. “We talk about it together to figure out matches. Some students have more challenging behaviors but we provide a lot of support to typical students so they can have positive experiences,” said Sienkiewitz. Senn said they have never had any problems. “I just step back at a certain point and let the buddies take over,” said Sienkiewitz.

The Best Buddies program has a structure in place, she said, adding, “We can come up with things we want to do, and our administration has been really supportive.” Senn is currently Sisson’s buddy and she is going to be taking her horseback riding. Senn said one of the avenues in special education she wants to pursue is working with therapeutic horses. She has been working at Stoney B Acres in Bernardston since she was in the seventh grade. Senn lives in Greenfield. “I especially want to work with autistic kids with the horses,” she said. “I’ve never ridden a horse, so we’ll have to see how it goes,” said Sisson.

Senn said she encourages all the buddies “to be as interactive as possible.” Sienkiewitz agreed, adding, “A lot of what I find with the students is if they have a gentle push in communicating it can open up a tremendous amount of confidence.” Sisson said three or four years go she could never have pictured herself sitting down to talk to a reporter. “The program teaches kids to communicate with all kinds of people and has created a richer, more inclusive community,” said Senn. Sienkiewitz said the program is great for getting students engaged in community service. Senn consistently approaches students to pique their interest. “One day two students just walked in (to the special needs student classroom) and just joined up,” said Senn.

The Best Buddies group is also working to discourage the use of the word “retarded,” asking students to take a pledge to not use the word and to educate others. The efforts look to create awareness that the word “retardation” was a clinical description that moved on to becoming a slur. The preferred term is “intellectual disability.” “We want to spread the word to end the word. We’re all the same. Some of us just have different challenges,” said Senn.

Senn said becoming involved with Best Buddies “is the best choice I’ve made in my time in high school.”