Best Buddies launches at Pawtucket elementary, middle schools

Best Buddies launches at Pawtucket elementary, middle schools

Elizabeth Townsend, program manager of school friendship for Best Buddies in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, far left, talks with Elizabeth Baldwin Elementary students Jinelly DeJesus and Alina Dalomba at an assembly held at the school where a Best Buddies program was introduced.

PAWTUCKET – Everyone needs a buddy. Luckily for students at Samuel Slater Middle School and Henry J. Winters and Elizabeth Baldwin elementary schools, meeting new friends of all different abilities just got a bit easier, thanks to the newly-established Best Buddies program at those respective schools.

Elizabeth Townsend, program manager of school friendship for Best Buddies in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, visited Baldwin Elementary recently, where she spoke to students about what the organization does and how to get involved. More than 40 students have already signed up to participate, school officials said.

Best Buddies is a program that connects students with disabilities with their school peers, helps foster “one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” according to the organization. Townsend said the program also aims to empower student leaders in their schools and communities.

Townsend said the elementary portion of Best Buddies started nationally in 2015, after the decision was made to offer these programs to younger students, not just those in middle and high school or college, where, “There’s been such great progress with students learning about inclusion and friendship.”

Starting Best Buddies in schools at the elementary level, Townsend said, allows the program to, “help create these friendships organically between students with or without disabilities, and teach about awareness and inclusion at that age before the negative stereotypes tend to form.”

When Townsend spoke with Baldwin students recently, the children made one thing clear: “Friendships mean a lot to them,” she said with a smile following the school’s Best Buddies assembly.

Townsend said working with Pawtucket school staff members to set the program up has “been a pleasure,” and said this work couldn’t happen without school support.