By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
First Buddy Ball proves to be 'blessing' for many
Brenna Heape
Brenna Heape smiles brightly while twirling during a dance with partner Ejon Scott during Saturday’s Buddy Ball at Moncrief Square in Springfield. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff

SPRINGFIELD — Chris and Annika Heidt didn’t spend a moment reminiscing at Moncrief Square on Saturday. They were totally immersed in the present.

The Heidts were excited to see their sharply dressed son, Alex, participate in the early moments of the Buddy Ball, the first prom-like event for special-needs students from Effingham County and South Effingham high schools. Alex greeted friends, posed for photographs and even vowed to dance.

“This is wonderful,” Annika said while struggling to contain her emotions.

Memories of the Heidts’ proms more than three decades ago were kept out of their minds by their focus on Alex.

“We didn’t know,” Chris said after being asked if he and Annika ever dreamed that Alex would have a chance to enjoy such an occasion. 

The ball featured a live DJ, dancing, a photo booth and a delicious meal. The food spread included chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese, green beans, rolls and desserts. They also had the chance to enjoy “mocktails” — Ocean Water, Pineapple Sunrise and Buddy’s Brew (Shirley Temple).

The Buddy Ball was a product of the Best Buddies Club at Effingham County High School, The first-year organization’s primary goal is to create opportunities for one-to-one friendships between students with intellectual and development disabilities, and their typical peers.

Evidence that the club is meeting its objective appeared early in the ball as special-needs student Ella Marchese led a conga line through the Moncrief Square courtyard. It was filled with her smiling contemporaries, new friends and even a parent or two.

“God’s hand is in this event,” Best Buddies Club President Ella Allen said. “Truly, it would not have occurred without Him. We celebrate each other for who we are not and not who we aren’t because He did first.”

The idea for the Buddy Ball originated last December and fundraising for it began in earnest in March. Club members topped their $3,600 goal by $1,800.

“It was hard for people to say ‘no’ to us” Allen said. “We are going to use the extra money to have even more Best Buddies parties.”

Moncrief Square owner Dee Moncrief felt honored to host and help organize the event for about 70 people.

“It’s a blessing,” she said.

Other key donors were Marchese Construction, Scott and Gina Bass, Carellas Law Firm, Newberry Law Firm, Greg and Amanda McBride, Brian and Amanda Phillips, Joe and Julie Pacenka, Rehan McNeil (Rawls Realty), Harco Construction, Phillips Flooring, Toss and Jill Allen, WasteDoctors, Gerbasi Signs, Chick-fil-A, Simply Southern, Mane Avenue Hair, Tunes in a Bucket, Caitlyn Nissely, Ally’s Bakery, Railyard Media and Balloon Babies.

“We were blessed to have the support of our community as we hosted our first Buddy Ball this year,” said Wendy Fears, one of the ball’s organizers.

Fears, a former Effingham County teacher, founded the Best Buddies Club. Her daughter, Kristin, is one of the 18 “differently abled” students in the 61-member club.

“Best Buddies gives students of all abilities an opportunity to have meaningful and lasting friendships, and to participate in club activities together helping to strengthen those relationships,” Fears said. “We hope that Best Buddies will extend to all the schools in Effingham and expand to encourage inclusion and friendships for all people in our entire community.”

South Effingham High School doesn’t have a Best Buddies Club yet but its special-needs students were invited to the Buddy Ball. Twelve attended.

“It’s really a simple thing,” said Joe Marchese, Ella Marchese’s father. “It all starts with ‘hello.’ We can be friends if we say ‘hello’ to each other even if we are different.

“Not everyone is going to say it back but that’s OK. It’s a start.”