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Best Buddies of Southwest Florida kicks off thanks to $300,000 grant from the Golisano Foundation

By Staff | Jun 7, 2018

A program that provides children who have special needs with peers who can provide some friendly support has received a kickstart in Lee County, thanks to a major donation.

More than a dozen chapters of Best Buddies of Southwest Florida have begun since the Golisano Foundation granted the organization $300,000.

Best Buddies of Southwest Florida Area Director Melanie Musick said the grant enabled them to expand the nonprofit Best Buddies International in Southwest Florida. The Golisano Foundation had previously granted Best Buddies to open an office in Rochester.

“We are so pleased to support the launch and expansion of Best Buddies in Southwest Florida,” said Ann Costello, executive director of the Golisano Foundation, in a prepared statement. “The success we achieved opening Best Buddies in Western NY, has enabled us to replicate that in Southwest Florida. We had some delays launching due to Hurricane Irma, but the team in Southwest Florida made up for that and picked up a lot of steam in a short period of time. Best Buddies has an exceptional track record. It is focused on the next generation, it changes attitudes, fosters inclusion and friendships that transcend differences. We are excited that we are able to expand this work building inclusive communities in Southwest Florida.”

Six months after becoming established in Southwest Florida, 13 chapters of Best Buddies have been formed. Ten more chapters were pending as of June 6.

“It’s been an amazing journey so far, as far as the connections and how receptive people are. People are excited. It’s a good thing,” she said. “Some of the schools had come on in the last couple of weeks. Even at the end of the school year, the teachers have seen the value this will do for the IDD students.”

Best Buddies is a friendship club, providing one-to-one friendship opportunities for children with intellectual and development disabilities with someone without IDD in elementary to collegiate levels in Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties.

“The idea is Best Buddies was originally founded for children with disabilities, but what the outcome has been, students without the disabilities being impacted 10 times more than the original targeted audience,” Musick said. “The number of times I get goosebumps throughout the week I can’t talk about without crying, it is so moving to see what the potential is in this area.”

Musick recalls when she was in school how children diagnosed with disabilities were segregated and kept separate from other students at the school.

“Part of the goal is, let’s mix the populations,” she explained.

One of the neatest chapters stems from Ida Baker High School, which has had a “Baker Buddies” program for the past 10 years.

“The timing just happened to be right. When we visited and presented what Best Buddies would add to their program, they were receptive of coming on with us,” Musick said.

Other Best Buddies chapters include Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers High School, Lehigh Senior High School, Manatee Middle School, Gateway Charter Intermediate, Varsity Lakes Middle School, Tortuga Preserve Elementary School, Babcock Neighborhood School, Gulf Elementary School, Riverdale High School, Estero High School and Florida Southwestern College.

In addition to Musick, Best Buddies of Southwest Florida also staffs Program Manager Katie Vazquez, who is the school liaison. Musick said Vazquez leaves the scheduling up to the school, so they can incorporate what works best for their population.

“It’s a flexible opportunity,” she said of some Best Buddies chapters meeting after school, before school and during lunch. “You know your school better than we do.”

Those interested in becoming a peer mentor have to fill out a membership application, which includes a matching survey. Questions include favorite music and television show and what they like to do on the weekends.

The faculty advisor and student leader will compare the IDD-defined student’s likes with the peer mentor, so they can make the best matches.

“This has been going on for 29 years,” Musick said of Best Buddies. “It has had time to map things out and find what works.”

Due to Best Buddies of Southwest Florida being so young, they are open to having volunteers to become more self-sustaining.

Best Buddies of Southwest Florida has an office at 5237 Summerlin Commons Blvd. in Fort Myers.

The advisory board for the local area includes Chairman Samantha Clark of Caring Transitions in Bonita Springs and Naples; Suzanne Tocci of Tortuga Preserve Elementary in Lehigh Acres and Jodi Suskind of Thrivent Financial in Fort Myers.

For more information, contact Musick at melaniemusick@bestbuddies.org, or call (239) 275-2510.

On Nov. 3, FGCU Best Buddies and Best Buddies of Southwest Florida will host an inaugural Southwest Florida Friendship Ball, a prom-like event for middle, high and college members. The ball will be held at the Cohen Center Ballroom on FGCU’s campus.