It’s 9:30 AM and the students of Archbishop Carroll High School are pouring into the auditorium to take their seats. Best Buddies Week has recently kicked off, and the entire student body has assembled for the “Disable the Label” presentation. The crowd falls silent when Father Mike Speziale, Priest and Moderator to the Best Buddies Program, takes the microphone. He directs the crowd’s attention to a video of Pope Francis’ arrival in Philadelphia. Just as Francis’ motorcade is ready to depart, the Holy Father suddenly breaks his calm demeanor and asks the driver to stop the vehicle. He makes his way over to a boy in a wheelchair sitting amongst the cheering crowd. In the video, Francis kisses the child and blesses his family. “This is what Pope Francis’ message is all about,” Father Mike says to the assemblage. “Embracing those who seem different than us and face many difficulties in their life.”
It is in this spirit that the Best Buddies Program is interwoven into the fabric of Archbishop Carroll’s student body. Students from St. Katherine Day School, the nearby special education school, are paired with an Archbishop Carroll High School students to create one-on-one peer friendships. In school and out, buddy pairs spend time building a relationship; they talk, eat meals, and catch movies together on the weekend.
“To get past the disability and get to know the person.” – Fr. Mike
Since its inception, Best Buddies has been embraced by the students, teachers, and faculty of the Archbishop Carroll High School community. During the program, students are encouraged to stop by St. Katherine’s classes and experience their lessons. Kathleen Gould, Principal of St. Katherine Day School, remarks on this unique opportunity for Carroll students to . “It’s a wonderful way for students to get an opportunity to see where their talents are,” says Gould.
Back in the auditorium, Disable the Label assembly features moving, self-written speeches from St. Katherine Day School students reflecting on their personal experience with the Best Buddies program. Many of these talks highlight a crucial theme of the assembly: The Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign. The focus is on eliminating “the R word” from derogatory use in everyday slang. Meredith Brooks, a representative from Best Buddies International remarked on the importance of this campaign. “The R word is not okay. People use it, and I don’t think they really understand — they say it between friends, joking around like, ‘Oh you’re such a retard.’ But it’s not a joking word and it’s not a funny word, it hurts people.”
Meredith’s advice on how to take action with this campaign? “You never know who you’re talking to, if that person has a cousin or best friend or brother who has a disability. We want to get it out to everyone that it’s not okay. Choose a different word.”
Kahn Zang, a junior at Archbishop Carroll High School and a Chinese exchange student, gave a speech on his unique experience becoming a member of the Best Buddies Program. Zang admitted that in China, people with disabilities are hidden from society, and that he was unaware of the hardships many people face. “What matters is not how much stuff you do with them, but how well you devote yourself into it,” said Zang, reflecting about his Best Buddies experience over the past 9 months, “They give you true friendship so you really have to respect them and consider them as your true friend.” Zang has found a home with his peers in Best Buddies remembering how he immediately felt that this was the place he should be. One thing he learned throughout this journey, (other than his newfound love of Dave and Busters) is to “Always respect others because everyone is equal. And everyone has talents.”
The assembly showcased these talents through a girls-against-boys Lip Sync Battle, by incorporating Archbishop Carroll men’s baseball and women’s softball teams onstage with St. Katherine’s students. Both sides danced and sang their way through Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” as the crowd cheered. To close the show, St. Katherine Day School students performed sign language and sang to “Oh Happy Day” from the film Sister Act. The entire auditorium was on its feet, singing and clapping along as St. Katherine students freestyled their own dance moves. There was a profound sense of community and kindness in the air that resonated throughout the room.
When asked what she hopes that this event will accomplish in their community, Kathleen Gould stated, “To get past the disability and get to know the person.”