RIVERSIDE – At lunch at Riverside Brookfield High School on March 12, Student after student lined up to sign their name, take a strip of paper and feed it through a shredder.
The action was symbolic and a pledge: On each strip of paper put through the shredder, the word “retarded” was printed in bold, block type.
“We’re trying to end the use of the word retarded,” senior Amy Zyck said. “If I hear someone in the hall say it, I ask them not to. People usually understand and accept it.”
Zyck, like the other students wearing blue T-shirts and manning the lunchroom table, is a part of the Best Buddies program. Best Buddies, an international nonprofit with a local chapter at RB, pairs students for one-to-one friendships with a student with an intellectual disability.
Zyck started with the program her sophomore year at RB and was soon paired up with her buddy, fellow senior Jennifer Bartlett.
“It’s fun,” Bartlett said of her friendship with Amy. “We go out to eat, we hang out.”
The program sets requirements that students hang out with their buddies outside of school and club events at least once a week, which all the students in the program said isn’t a hard goal to keep.
“It’s interesting how the friendship evolves,” senior Dan Curtin said. “It starts as a new friendship, it can be awkward, but then you’re just friends. You have arguments, you hang out – it’s really no different.”
Dan said his buddy, John, is like family at this point. He’ll come home and John will be baking with Curtin’s mom in the kitchen before the two hang out.
RB social worker Mari Mortenson, the program’s sponsor, said it’s precisely how casual the friendships are that make them so worthwhile and impactful on both student’s lives.
“It’s one thing for students just to be nice, but it’s another to have them develop real friendships, and that’s what this is about,” Mortenson said.
Most students get involved at the program’s events. Students are invited to join the group out bowling or to a sports game in Chicago. Students who want more out of the program apply and are then selected as buddies and paired with another student. Students will also get information about their buddy and his or her disability, allowing them to ask questions and feel more comfortable. From there, it’s basically the progression of any friendship, Mortenson said.
Students are RB have gone on to open and lead the Best Buddies program at their colleges and universities. In fact, RB is known and respected as a program that turns out some of the best and more dedicated students, Mortenson said. Many relationships started at the high school also continue when the student is in college and comes home on break, she said.
The program attracts all types of students. Zeke Linares, a junior, admitted he got involved because he heard it would look good to colleges. He started as an event buddy but soon wanted to do more with the club.
“I really enjoy it and [Joe] does too,” Linares said about his relationship with his buddy, Joe Wright. “We have a great time hanging out. We’ll go to Loca Moca or something.”
March is Best Buddies month, and the club plans to expand its efforts to the wider community outside of the school as well. The club has also decided on a fundraiser, led by the buddies, who will sell root beer floats in the cafeteria to raise money for the Oak Park Animal Care League, where students will also volunteer.
The Shred the R-word campaign was started by the Best Buddies program to remind fellow students to think about how their language can affect others. Students said they don’t usually hear the word directed at a person with a disability, but in a more casual way, as a way to say something is bad.
“People don’t think about it,” Curtin said. “But it still hurts someone who hears it. Most people understand that and if you say something, they’ll agree.”
While Best Buddies is all about friendship, it doesn’t hurt to try and make people more friendly, too.