More than 60 Newtown High School students gathered and danced the night away at a very special prom event. Best Buddies, a program that brings handicapped and mainstream students together over the course of the year, celebrated the club’s first prom.
Each Peer Buddy is matched with a Buddy, who remain partners in the club throughout the year. The Best Buddies Club is national organization that was brought to NHS by teacher Jill Gonski.
Vice President of the club, Aidan Pelisson, has Aspergers Syndrome with mild autism. He has been a part of this club since he was a freshman, and said that the club allows him to meet new friends, which he said is difficult for him to do. He especially enjoys his friendship with his Peer Buddy, Sean.
Sean Nuelle, a senior at NHS who is finishing up his second year with the club, said he also enjoys the time he spends with Pellison. “I got turned on to this club through a class for Peer Mentors for Special Ed,” Nuelle said. “It’s a really great program with some really great people.”
Describing the program, Nuelle said the group goes on a lot of outings, like bowling, golfing and going to the movies. “I’ve always enjoyed helping people and this club just makes you feel pretty cool,” he said.
Nuelle will be studying film when he leaves for college in the fall. His Buddy, Pelisson, will graduate next year and is looking forward to studying computer science, but said, “I might go to film school instead.”
At a nearby table, several young ladies dressed in pretty prom dresses described their experiences with Best Buddies. Zoe Eggleston, Peer Buddy, said, “Every week we have a theme, and we make sure we have contact during the week. We call each other, sit together at lunch. It’s the easiest club to belong to, because it is just like having a friend.”
Charlotte Gray, another Peer Buddy, said, “It’s the highlight of my week.”
Special education teacher of eight years, Margaret O’Callaghan was a chaperone at Friday night's prom. She said that there have been many changes and special education is becoming much more inclusive. “Kids in special ed today are introduced much more into the mainstream, and Best Buddies has had a huge impact in the program,” she said. “Jill Gonski and Mimi Riccio have done an amazing job.”
That sentiment seemed to ring from every corner of the room. Students, teachers, parents, and even Sherry Earle, Chairman of BHS Special Education echoed praise for Gonski.
“Jill Gonski is a national treasure,” Earle said. “She is life changing. If I think about the individual children, how she helped a young lady learn to communicate; how she helps those without graces to have a friend. It’s transformational.”
Gonski is also the teacher of the class, “Tools for Living”, where many of the buddies and peers are also involved in projects that include researching disabilities. “Jill plays many roles,” Earle said.
The special ed students may range in some abilities, but in their ability to get in the groove and dance came as naturally to them as it does to any teenager. The video tells the story.