FITCHBURG — The Best Buddies classroom at the high school was bustling with activity on a recent weekday, full of the nearly four dozen students in the special education program and some of the Peer Buddies students who assist them, including seniors Collin Dudek and Connor Thomas.
“I felt the need to help these high schoolers with disabilities be included and have the ability to make friends and bonds that will last a lifetime,” Dudek, 18, said of what inspired him to get involved with Best Buddies his freshman year.
Both young men have been actively selling the annual calendar raffle that benefits the Best Buddies program, which is currently running through the end of April. They, along with other students, have set up a table in the cafeteria during lunchtime multiple times and asked students and staff to purchase the raffle fundraiser that has daily prizes such as gift cards, customized Best Buddies swag, an electric pizza maker and more. Winning tickets will be re-entered.
“We will use this money to fund our members to go to Best Buddies prom, which is going to be hosted at Leominster High School,” said faculty adviser and special education teacher Shelby Searles. “We will use any remaining money to fund outings such as bowling, apple picking, movies, etc.”
Searles said Best Buddies is an international organization that Fitchburg High School “was lucky enough to adopt several years ago.”
“Best Buddies’ main goal is to create friendships with those with and without disabilities,” she said. “I enjoy seeing the natural friendships form in Best Buddies, nothing has to be forced or contrived when our chapter gets together. The way that the Fitchburg high community has encompassed the true meaning of inclusion is remarkable.”
Thomas, 17, said he got involved with Best Buddies his sophomore year because he has been friends with one of the students in the program, Cole Donelan, since they were 6 years old playing hockey together and “winning championships.”
“Cole is a great kid, my best friend I would say,” Thomas said. “He has Williams syndrome, but you wouldn’t even be able to notice with his athletic ability and his school smarts. We played hockey together when we were younger and won five championships in a row with him being the goalie. He was also a part of Unified Track and Unified Basketball where he was the top dog at both sports … I joined Best Buddies to meet more kids like Cole Donelan.”
He added he gets a lot out of being a part of Best Buddies, including enjoying the gym classes they participate in during school that make “the day go by way faster” and the bowling events Searles set up that “were always fun to be a part of.”
Although Dudek joined Best Buddies his freshman year, he said it wasn’t until his junior year that he “had time to dedicate to it” and “got really involved with the program.”
“I enjoy seeing the smiles on the faces of these great friends,” he said.
Dudek, Searles and Thomas said the calendar raffle sales are going well and that so far, they have sold about 100.
“The students thought it was cool that we had all those prizes they could win,” Thomas said of the reaction from their peers. “I think it’s important to have this event every year because I think it’s the best club in the school system and if we do a lot of events then more people might be interested to join and have a great time.”
Searles echoed his sentiments, saying the raffle program “gives our special needs students the opportunity to interact with their peers outside of the high school environment.”
“By selling the raffle tickets, awareness is spread about the inclusive opportunities that this program has.”
Best Buddies calendar raffle tickets can be filled out by visiting https://forms.gle/WHf8TTtR4dpAUhTw7, with one submission per ticket purchased. Payment of $5 per ticket can be sent via Ca$happ ($FHSbestbuddies) or Venmo (@Shelby-Searles-1).