Written by Ginger Perry and Gwen Pearson
The swaying rhythm of lights synced to the flow of inspiring music that echoed throughout the auditorium. People were everywhere. Whether they were singing, dancing, teary-eyed, or laughing, people were everywhere. And what is most amazing, is that all these people, from everywhere around the country and even the world, were here for just one cause. They were here for Best Buddies.
In late July, Gwen Pearson and I attended the 27th annual Best Buddies International Leadership Conference at Indiana University. Gwen, as the chapter president of the Best Buddies club at our school, had to attend as part of her role as president, and I,as secretary of the club, decided to come along because it seemed like an interesting experience. The conference had always seemed like an event that was far away, something we did not have to really think about. But as those four days at IU grew closer, we began to feel more and more nervous, because well, we had no idea what to expect.
Gwen and I actually had a rough start to the conference. We were supposed to have an early morning flight out of T.F. Green to Baltimore for a layover, and then on to Indianapolis. But, that never happened. What ended up occurring was that our flight got cancelled (darn you Southwest), and the two adult staff who were in charge of us high school participants could not find another flight that would get us on some sort of route to Indiana from T.F. Green. So, with all that flight drama, our nerves were beginning to go through the roof.
But, here’s where that saying that sometimes good things can come out of bad things comes into play. We actually ended up taking an impromptu road trip to NYC, stopping at Mystic Pizza for lunch along the way. And to kill time, we actually got to see The Secret life of Pets in a very luxurious movie theatre in Queens. We arrived at Laguardia airport, infamously known for not being too pleasant, but at that point we were just exhausted since we had started the day at 5 am in Providence. And from NYC, was our flight to Indianapolis. When we finally touched down in Indiana, it was about 11:30pm. That was already about nineteen hours of travel. And it didn’t stop there- we were bussed from the airport to Indiana university, where the conference was being held, which took another hour. 20 hours! But we had so much adrenaline rushing through us, we barely noticed the time. In fact, we had more energy on our way to the university at midnight than we did throughout the entire day because the excitement overwhelmed us.
However, our delayed arrival to the conference caused us to miss the open ceremonies of the conference, which was disappointing. But that ended up being okay, because the rest of the time at the conference made up for it and more.
Over those next three days, we did a lot. And I’m not kidding. We did a lot. From watching panel discussions from various advocates for Best Buddies (including Lauren Potter from Glee and Jamie Brewer from American Horror Story), listening to inspiring speeches from important public and Best Buddies figures (including Tony Richardson from the NFL), to having dance parties with all the other participants, and getting to meet and talk to teens from practically every state in the US and other countries, the whole entire conference was jam-packed with learning opportunities and the fuel for motivation. It was truly inspiring to meet all these people from all over who are so passionate about the Best Buddies organization and its mission, and to learn about the impacts they made in their schools and communities.The theme of the whole conference was “All in for Best Buddies” and it didn’t take two days for us to be all in- we were all in the first second we got there. After the experience, you could take away so much from every moment spent there. The conference not only led to many wonderful ideas to benefit our chapter, but it also left us with friendships we will cherish for a long time.
It showed us how important the Best Buddies organization is to the community, and how the messages of Best Buddies go even beyond just the organization. Before attending the conference, we knew that Best Buddies promoted friendship and inclusion of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But through this conference, we learned that students with IDD are not the entire focus. Best Buddies promotes the inclusion of everyone, whether they are a student with IDD or not.
We thought this message that Best Buddies advocates for is so striking because it is so needed in the general high school community. For some students, high school is a really tough time, and can be not an inviting environment. But, especially here at EGHS, having Best Buddies as a prominent influence at high schools automatically makes the high school community more inclusive and welcoming, because that is exactly what the organization speaks up for. And after all, as the Best Buddies slogan says, everybody needs a friend, no matter who you are.