Lauren Salter sat with her buddy recently at Riverside Middle School to work on puzzles.
While Lauren focused on the pieces, Heather Wright played a game with her buddy and Erica Head played catch with hers.
Playing such games with their special needs classmates is something the sixth-graders often do as members of the Buddy Club.
Started in area high schools, the Buddy Club pairs students with students who have mental, emotional or physical disabilities.
Lauren’s brother Justin Salter, 17, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. But that hasn’t stopped him from becoming an advocate of tolerance for the handicapped by speaking, with the help of a computer, to schools and civic groups throughout the area.
Inspired by her brother, and after witnessing the friends he made through his involvement with the Buddy Club at Greenbrier High, Lauren, 12, started such a club last year at River Ridge Elementary School and again this school year as Riverside Middle.
“She came to me one day and asked why Buddy Clubs are only in high schools,” said Lauren’s mother, Heloise Salter, who is a parent mentor for the Columbia County school system and works as a liaison between parents of disabled children and schools. “I couldn’t think of any good reason for that, so I helped her as best I could when she wanted to start a Buddy Club at River Ridge (Elementary).”
In its first year, the Buddy Club signed up 50 fifth-graders to interact with and befriend special needs pupils. This year, the membership has doubled.
So far, the Buddy Club at Riverside Middle has 35 members, but other such clubs have since been established at Lewiston, Brookwood, Riverside and Baker Place elementary schools.
At Riverside Middle, pupils rotate meeting with six special-needs pupils twice each week before classes start.
“I wanted to increase the understanding between regular (education) students and special needs students,” Lauren said.
That increased understanding has resulted in lasting friendships as some Buddy Club members have attended school dances and events outside school with their special-needs counterparts. Lauren said her buddy recently attended her birthday party.
Riverside Middle special needs teacher Anna McKee-Poore said groups like the Buddy Club help impaired pupils learn social skills.
“It’s a great way for these students to interact with regular students in a safe setting,” McKee-Poore said. “It’s a goal we have to socialize students and involve them with the general education classes as much as possible.”