Dozens of SUNY Buffalo State students in recent months have joined people with intellectual or developmental disabilities to walk the campus, grab lunch or take in a movie. This weekend, they'll play flag football.
It's all part of the Buff State Best Buddies program, established more than a decade ago to include the differently abled in activities with students. Canisius and Daemen colleges started similar programs this school year.
Best Buddies is designed for those roughly the same in age but, because the program is so new to Buffalo, adults up to age 40 pal around with young adults.
"Ideally, you're similar aged because you want to give them that college experience," said Lindsay Jewett, program manager in Western New York, who has begun an upstate effort to duplicate the success of Rochester, which has more than a dozen Best Buddies chapters.
Town of Tonawanda native Autumn Jenks, 19 – a Buffalo State sophomore, exceptional education major and president of the school's Best Buddies program – hopes the Flag Football Showdown she spearheaded will bring awareness to that effort.
"Our goal is to create friendships," she said.
The chapter has about 60 members, who first gathered last September and have participated in several events throughout the school year, including a Friendship Ball – more like a prom – with other Best Buddies chapters last month in Syracuse.
Jenks and others with the Buffalo State chapter started planning the football contest last summer, after one of the buddies suggested it.
"Assistant football coach Christian Ozolins has been meeting with us monthly," Jenks said. "We modified all the rules and regulations for the game to fit all abilities.
"Coach Ozolins is refereeing and his football players are mentoring us. They just met with us a couple of weeks ago for the first time. We were going to ask them to be coaches but now they're actually playing.
The teams will wear orange or black – the Buffalo State colors – and square off in an 80-minute game that starts at noon on Sunday at Coyer Field on campus. Gates open at 11 a.m.
Admission is free but donations are encouraged.
"All donations will go to Best Buddies New York in hopes of opening other chapters in our area in middle schools, high schools and on college campuses," Jenks said. Popcorn, snow cones, cotton candy, hot dogs and water will sell for $1, with proceeds to Best Buddies, as well.
The Buffalo State student government – called the United Students Government – helps underwrite the cost of the school's Best Buddies chapter.
It has been a natural fit for Jenks, who decided in sixth grade in the Ken-Ton school district that she wanted to be a special education teacher.
"That's when I started volunteering, coaching at an organization called CAPS, Challenged Athletes Participating in Sports," she said. "I coached throughout my middle school and high school career. It was a passion that grew.
"Every time I saw a student with a disability, no matter what was going on in their life, they always smiled. They took their abilities and made the best of them. To me, if a student is facing a challenge every day with a disability, and can still live life to the fullest, then I have the ability to do the same thing. I want the students who I end up teaching to know that even though they have a disability, no dream is too big to come true."
Further motivation came from a fellow student with Down syndrome who lived on her street and rode the bus to and from school in the Ken-Ton school district for years.
"He always brightened my day," she said. "Every time he saw me, he'd give me a hug and tell me he loved me."
Those with special needs fill out an application to participate in Best Buddies. They need only check a box that says they have a disability. Enough said. Then they answer other questions about their interests.
Jenks and other leaders host a general interest meeting at the start of the school year, see who mingles well, and use those observations and the questionnaire to make student peer-buddy matches.
Anthony Kennedy Shriver founded the first Best Buddies chapter while at Georgetown University three decades ago. More than 900,000 people across the world have participated since.
The Golisano Foundation provided a three-year grant last year to grow Best Buddies upstate. Students at Niagara University are expected to join the fold next school year, Jewett said. Adult and child buddy chapters also are encouraged.
"We've been granted to start some elementary school programs, as well," the regional director said. "That's when the separation starts."
Those interested in plugging into a chapter or building one can visit bestbuddies.org/newyork, call Jewett at 585-210-9864 or email her at email@example.com.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon