Grade 12 Tupper student Darwin Balino got involved in the Best Buddies club in order to bridge a divide that he felt existed between the Tupper Lifeskills class and the rest of the school.
Once a week, the program pairs 15 special needs students with 30 "Best Buddy" students. Each week the buddies meet with their mentees for lunch. They also have participated in (or are currently planning) a wide-range of activities including pumpkin carving, Easter egg hunts, bowling trips and movie theatre visits.
Their most recent event was a trip to the ice rink where buddies and mentees took to the Hillcrest ice with gusto. Everyone says the trip was an absolute blast.
Wendy Higenbottam is a counselor at Tupper and the teacher sponsor of the club. She says the company of Balino and student leaders Dalena Pham, Patrick Soledad, Patrick Smythe, Halley Sana and all the other Tupper Best Buddies is greatly appreciated by the Lifeskills students.
"They really look forward to meeting their buddies," she says. "The relationships between students and buddies are truly authentic. They are building true friendships here. The only reason this happens is there is a real effort coming from all of the students."
The decision to get actively involved in the Best Buddies club didn't happen on a whim. Balino has been working with physical and mentally challenged kids for the past few years. Last spring he coached a summer sports program that had an autistic child in it. Over the months, he says he was blown away with the student's personal growth and progressive development as both an individual and a team member. Soon afterwards, Balino volunteered to help out at Sunny Hill Centre where he worked as a recreation therapy assistant. Twice a week Balino worked with physically disabled students playing board games, dodgeball and participating in swimming activities.
"Darwin really has a passion for inclusion," says Higenbottam. "It is completely inspiring. He takes student leadership to a whole new level. He is driven by a passion for inclusion and working with special needs students."
In addition to the Best Buddies program, Balino is also a founder of the Canucks Autism Network Club where, thanks to the leadership of Balino and others, they managed to raise over $3,700 through a series of innovative fundraisers including a volunteer grocery bagging service.
"It felt great knowing that the money goes to help kids struggling with autism," says Balino.