“It’s really empowering:” Oak Creek H.S. Best Buddies program makes sure everyone is included

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OAK CREEK -- One aspect of sports that seems to be universal is inclusion. From participating as an athlete or watching and cheering as a fan, sports will bring people together. At Oak Creek High School, there's a program that's all about inclusion.

"It's really fun. It's nice to have everyone together," said Best Buddies Vice President, Rebecca Olen.

On a windy and brisk fall evening, floats filled with students from Oak Creek High School are on parade.

Best Buddies program

Best Buddies program

"We're going on our homecoming parade," said Olen.

Homecoming has hundreds of students coming together, celebrating their school and its traditions.

"We're going with all the other clubs and sports. So it's definitely a way to be included and part of the school. We have a lot of people over there who are joining this. And every year we've definitely seen more and more people join. So it's definitely great," said Olen.

Just behind a taco float are the members of the school's Best Buddies program.

Best Buddies program

Best Buddies program

"It's super cool. Every year, I think we have a different king and queen which is awesome because then they get included," said Olen.

Best Buddies program

Best Buddies program

With smiles shining brighter than the crowns on their head, this year's honorees take part in all of the homecoming festivities.

"They feel awesome. They get like a spotlight on them for a day and it's just great," said Olen.

"I love seeing them come to the activities and feeling like they are a part of something and that they have friends and that they can have fun. And just showing them different things in the world that are fun," said Best Buddies President, Lizzy Reed.

The Best Buddies program pairs students with intellectual disabilities with students that don't have them. But there's a bigger meaning, especially for club president, Lizzy Reed.

"It's really empowering. They feel like they are part of our school, they aren't excluded and they just get to be out there and be in front of people and show off that they are just as awesome as everyone else," said Reed.

Special education teacher, Raquel Thorsen, introduced the Best Buddies program to Oak Creek High School nine years ago.

"Actually it's a great experience for both sides. The kids who don't have a disability say that they learn so much from our kids that do have disabilities; just about the challenges they face every day and what they go through. Then the kids that have the disabilities just love spending time with the kids who don't have disabilities and doing activities with them," said Best Buddies Co-Advisor, Raquel Thorson.

Many of the inclusive activities are related to sports, such as a kickball game, one in which the Brewers Racing Sausages participated.

Best Buddies program

Best Buddies program

"The kids really enjoy sports. And a lot of our kids can't necessarily participate on a sports team in some sports," said Thorson.

On one Friday night, Jonah Melodzic did become part of the Oak Creek football team when he took part in the coin toss with his buddy and friend, Brian Sullivan.

"I think basically it makes him feel he's part of the school and part of the team and part of the whole atmosphere around here," said Thorson.

Which is exactly what Best Buddies is for -- to include students who might not otherwise have that opportunity.

Best Buddies program

Best Buddies program

"It's really nice because now, throughout school, I see people communicating with the buddies and talking to them like friends. And it really makes me feel good because I like people being included," said Olen.

The Best Buddies program at Oak Creek is very popular. It has more than 100 students trying to get a buddy who is developmentally challenged.

The goal of the program is to make everyone feel included and a part of the school. It also aims to see friendships grow through and beyond Best Buddies.