Malvern Collegiate was buzzing all week before spring break.
But forget Cuba and Cancun – the hot topic was social justice.
Over five days, Malvern students and visiting speakers led more than 50 workshops for the school’s annual social justice conference. Several dealt with gender issues, others with racism, poverty, politics, and food.
On day four, students could go see War Witch, a Canadian film about a child soldier in sub-Saharan Africa, or hear a talk on equity in the newsroom from David Studer, director of journalism standards at the CBC.
Upstairs, in Marie Axler’s English class, students at the Best Buddies workshop talked about an issue much closer to home – making sure kids with intellectual disabilities or autism don’t go through school in a social bubble.
“Everybody deserves a friend,” said Robyn Christensen, a Best Buddies coordinator.
Now running in elementary and high schools as well as universities, Best Buddies promotes lasting friendships between students who might not get a chance to meet otherwise.
“We so often hear from parents of kids with intellectual disabilities that their kid’s never been invited to a sleepover, or to a birthday party, or to go out to the movies, and now that they’ve been involved in Best Buddies, they have,” said Christensen.
“That’s amazing. We take those things for granted as a normal thing you have in childhood, but not all kids get those opportunities.”
Morgan Graham is a Grade 12 student and copresident of Malvern’s Best Buddies chapter.
Graham chats regularly with the student she’s been paired with, who goes to Danforth Collegiate. Sometimes they hang out.
Several times a year, the whole Best Buddies group rents out a gym to play basketball at Danforth, which has a special-needs program.
“It can get pretty intense,” said Graham, smiling.
At the end of the year, everyone meets at Malvern, where music teacher Mike Falla gets them all set up with drums. This year, Graham hopes they can organize a field trip, too, maybe to the Ontario Science Centre.
Like several other members, Graham signed up with Best Buddies back in Grade 9, and has done it every year since. She got involved after working for an Orangeville summer camp for kids with special needs, and had the same buddy for the first three years.
“You grow up with them,” she said.
Asked what her buddies think about it, Graham said, “I think they feel more accepted. They get the friendship, the interaction skills – just normal teenager kind of things.”
A lacrosse player, Graham is going to a US college in West Virginia next year, and she has already spoken with the college president about starting a Best Buddies chapter there as well.
Marie Axler is the Malvern teacher who has been in charge of the program for the last six years, but she was quick to downplay that role.
“Our students do everything,” she said.
Watching them play sports or do crafts or play music together, Axler said she’s struck by how easily all the students make friends.
“It’s very natural,” she said. “I think it gives both groups opportunities to see things and share things they normally don’t.”