It’s been almost 10 years since I met one of my closest friends through the Best Buddies chapter at my high school. Paired through the program after an interview process, my Buddy and I spent our after-school time going to the mall and getting our nails done on the weekends. Painting and drawing took up most of our time—we were originally paired for our shared love of the arts. Apart from our one-on-one activities, the chapter would host community events, including holiday dances and, one of my personal favourites, parties at the local bowling alley. The organization was deeply cherished by my high school, teaching our community the importance of acceptance and of developing friendships.

March is recognized as Best Buddies month, and UTM’s Best Buddies chapter has been active with many initiatives. I spoke with the co-presidents of the UTM chapter, Fatima Khalid and Shams Al-Badri, about the importance of inclusivity and how students can take the time to celebrate the group. Khalid is in her third year completing a specialist in comparative physiology, and Al-Badri is in her fourth year specializing in psychology. 

Best Buddies is a non-profit organization run in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools working to “create lasting friendships between students with and without an intellectual or developmental disability.” Originally founded in 1989 by Anthony Kennedy Shriver in the United States, Best Buddies Canada was established by Daniel Greenglass and Penny Shore in the early nineties. Canada is now home to countless active chapters, with more than 100 chapters in Ontario alone. Internationally, Best Buddies chapters can be found in over 50 countries. “It’s [a] way to hang out with students with disabilities outside of the UTM campus,” says Khalid, reminding students that inclusivity is important both on and off-campus.

Events held through Best Buddies Canada primarily involve fundraisers to support the many chapters present throughout the country. For example, the yearly Thrill of Ascott gala raised over half a million dollars in 2020. Additional galas and dances held to bring neighbouring chapters together are also common events hosted by Best Buddies, allowing for the creation of friendship across many cities. 

Run in affiliation with Community Living Mississauga, UTM Best Buddies organizes community events and fundraisers for individuals with disabilities off campus. “People with disabilities aren’t always given the opportunity to be part of society,” says Al-Badri. As such, Best Buddies works to create a safe space for these individuals.

Community Living Mississauga is a non-profit charity organization supporting individuals with intellectual disabilities in off-campus settings. They offer aid in residential services, community and recreational support programs, as well as child and youth outreach. 

Both Al-Badri and Khalid were introduced to Best Buddies by prior executive members when they took part in activities the club held in the early years of the UTM chapter. After seeing the importance of the club on campus, both decided to make a difference and apply as co-presidents to support the organization. 

Finding friends isn’t always an easy thing to do, and Best Buddies creates a welcoming space that encourages friendships, and most importantly, social inclusion for those with disabilities. Although official peer-buddy pairings didn’t occur this year, activities held over the course of the semester promoted a hub for students with and without disabilities to develop long-lasting friendships. 

Prior to the pandemic, the club organized activities including laser tag, ice cream socials, and trips to the movies. Recently, however, social events have been held exclusively online, allowing members to play games, watch movies, and socialize. The club also holds social events once every month. “We have been staying on track with events even through the pandemic,” says Al-Badri. Although official events through UTM Best Buddies are over for the semester, group members understand the importance of social interactions during times of isolation, and will continue to informally organize get-togethers through the summer. That’s the beauty of friendships and clubs like this—they don’t stop with the end of the school year.

Many students are unaware of the many initiatives at UTM that promote inclusivity. Although accessibility services on campus provide academic aid to students with disabilities, social opportunities outside of the classroom for these students are rare. “There isn’t much representation for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities on campus,” says Khalid.

“Joining and celebrating the club is the best way for students to honour Best Buddies and what it does for the UTM community,” says Al-Badri, claiming that the key to inclusivity on campus lies in the exposure of clubs like Best Buddies Canada. Students are also encouraged to write a pledge in honour of inclusivity and reflect on opportunities to promote friendship in their community. 

Over the years, my Buddy and I have developed an unbreakable sisterhood, a bond that I hope others can create through joining the club. I have learned countless lessons by partaking in Best Buddies; these lessons have helped me navigate through my journey of becoming an adult. To those interested in taking part of the Best Buddies chapter at UTM and truly making a difference in someone’s life, there are two ways to join the club: you can sign up through the officialBest Buddies Canada website or email the UTM chapter at [email protected]

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