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Best Buddies Club sparking inclusion revolution at ECHS
Best Buddies
Rotary Club of Effingham County President Abby Smith (fourth from left) presents a $500 check to Ella Allen (from left), Caitlyn Fears, Kristen Fears and Wendy Fears of Effingham County High School’s Best Buddies Club. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff
This is something that impacts us every single day of our life.
President Ella Allen, ECHS Best Buddies Club president

 RINCON — Wendy Fears’ mouth was rendered useless by a clog of emotion. Her eyes spoke volumes, however.

A few gentle tears explained the importance of the matter she discussed during a presentation to the Rotary Club of Effingham County on March 10.

“This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Fears said after quickly composing herself at The Herald Center. “Now that I’m retired after 32 years of teaching, I decided that this was the time to get going on what our mission was.”

Fears’ mission, accomplished last fall, was to start a Best Buddies International Club at Effingham County High School (ECHS), her “differently abled” daughter Kristen’s school. Best Buddies International is a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to establishing a volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment, leadership development and inclusive living for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“High school is a really hard place,” Fears said. “I remember when Kristen was born — being a high school teacher — the first thing that came to my mind was, ‘Oh, my gosh. What are we going to do when she is in high school?’ ”

Fortunately, Kristen, 18, was received warmly by many students and has made lots of friends.

“We have been so blessed in Effingham County,” Fears said. “People have been put into (Kristen’s) life over and over again that have included her.”

Kristen played basketball and participated in the Drama Club at Effingham County Middle School. At ECHS, she has continued to indulge in drama is a Rebels cheerleader.

Of course, Kristen is also one of 61 inaugural members of the ECHS Best Buddies Club. Eighteen are also “differently abled.”

The membership far exceeds Fears’ expectations.

“Originally, I felt like we would be a success if I could find five differently abled students and match them up with five typical peers,” she said.

Fears said Effingham County School District administrators and the Effngham County Recreation Department are very supportive of her efforts. She added that club membership has numerous advantages.

“Best Buddies is a club that all of our differently abled students can be a member of because sometimes there aren’t clubs for them to be a member of,” she said. “The main thing for that is that we want them included with their typical peers. We want them to have a chance to have friendships that means something in a broader sense — to be included, come to the football games, come to the basketball games, have someone text them all the time or call them on the phone, eat lunch with them.

“It’s not happening as fast as I want it to happen but it is happening. We really just want to change the culture. Our school has always been a kind school. I don’t think Kristen has ever felt that anybody was not kind to her but our students have not always included our differently abled population like we would like them to.”

Like her mother, Kristen choked up when she tried to talk about the club and its importance to her. Her sister, Caitlyn, an ECHS counselor and Best Buddies advisor, assisted her by reading notes she wrote about making new friends and attending Best Buddies parties.

“... I think that kind of goes to show how much these friendships mean to us,” said ECHS junior Ella Allen, president of the Best Buddies Club, in reference to Kristen’s reaction. “They are not just something that happens at school. This is something that impacts us every single day of our life.”

Fears said the Best Buddies Club, which also includes ECHS teacher Miranda Clayter as an advisor, affords typical students the opportunity to become more aware of “all the different kinds of people in the world.“

“It’s not just in high school. That’s life,” she said. There are always going to be different kinds of people around you and you have to be ready to accept them and work with all kinds of people.”

Allen, who directed a slide show of Best Buddies events, and Caitlyn thanked Rotarians for their donations, including $500 following their presentation. The funds are used to pay dues, parties, etc.

Fears hopes South Effingham High School will start a Best Buddies Club soon. She also has the county’s middle schools in her sight.

“I can even see Best Buddies in the elementary schools,” she said.