Students with special needs find ‘Best Buddies’ through SWFL schools program

For Southwest Florida students with special needs, the ‘Best Buddies’ program lends a helping hand through the school hallway.

The program builds a bridge between high school students and their peers with intellectual or developmental disabilities by pairing them together as best buddies.

Celine LoBocchiaro, a senior at Ida Baker High School, said the program is changing the entire school. LoBocchiaro said she wanted to join the peer program because she has two family members on the autism spectrum.

“We treat each other like family and we build one to one friendships,” LoBocchiaro said. “I was matched with Miranda.”

Abigil Stokes, a student with special needs who also attends Ida Baker High School, told us the program is amazing.

The Best Buddies program started making matches like these in Southwest Florida schools in 2017.

Jennifer Mackler is an Exceptional Student Education staffing specialist with the School District of Lee County.

“For our students, it’s opening up the world to things that they’re never been able to do before and friendships they probably wouldn’t have made before,” Mackler said. “We require two meetups with their paired buddy during the month and we want them to develop a natural friendship.”

Rayne Roe, a sophomore at Ida Baker High School, has had trouble making friends her whole life. It is something she does not want others to feel.

“When we met,” Roe said, “I was really excited because I just get to make an impact on another person’s life.”

They are creating connections that lead to special handshakes.

“We started doing it and we both really like it,” LoBocchiaro said. “So that’s our new thing now and we do it whenever we see each other.”

Moreover, support that extends well beyond the classroom. LoBocchiaro said they do activities together, including going to the movies.

They make friendships for the benefit of the community growing and learning together, not just for the intellectually challenged.

“We are more than friends,” Stokes said. “We’re family and family means no one gets left behind.”

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For more information about getting involved, contact the office of Best Buddies SWFL at (239) 275-2510.

Reporter:Melinda Lee
Writer:Michael Mora
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