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UofGH club is promoting inclusivity and friendship
Photo courtesy of Lauren Abela
Photo courtesy of Jessica Rotolo
When Lauren Abela realized there was not yet a chapter of Best Buddies at the University of Guelph-Humber, she reached out to Best Buddies Canada to find out how to start one. Coincidentally, Jessica Rotolo was doing the same for Humber College.
Together, the two founded the UofGH and Humber North chapter of Best Buddies. Best Buddies is an international program dedicated to promoting inclusivity and creating long-lasting friendships between people with and without an intellectual or developmental disability (IDD).
After Best Buddies Canada connected Abela and Rotolo, it was an instant friendship.
“Jessica and I met and realized we have so much in common. We decided let's start this up together—let's be the first buddy pair,” said Abela, who is entering her third year in the Psychology program.
Buddy pairs consist of a buddy (students with an IDD) matched with a peer buddy (students without an IDD). “One great thing about Best Buddies is that we incorporate buddy members into everyday activities, which is what society should be all about,” Abela said. “We should be inclusive and kind to everyone.”
A virtual start
Abela and Rotolo were both involved in Best Buddies in high school, but starting their own chapter was a whole new experience.
“I was in Best Buddies for 10 years, but this is my first time being on the exec team for Best Buddies,” said Rotolo, a recent graduate of Humber College’s Community Integration through Co-operative Education program. Rotolo is also a performer, artist and member of the Down Syndrome Association of Toronto.
After recruiting members and becoming an official Best Buddies chapter and IGNITE sanctioned club, Abela and Rotolo were set to host their first chapter event in March 2020. While they unfortunately had to cancel due to the pandemic, they have since moved their programming online.
Throughout the past year, the UofGH/Humber North chapter of Best Buddies has hosted games nights, drop-in movie sessions and baking lessons. In partnership with the Ryerson University and University of Toronto Scarborough Best Buddies chapters, they held a Valentine's Day dance and Halloween Olympics, complete with a costume contest and dance party.
Abela and Rotolo also regularly go live on the Best Buddies Canada Instagram to share a variety of activities. The virtual events have allowed students, as well as friends and family of Abela and Rotolo, to support the duo. “Being an online platform, people from around Canada are able to tune in and enjoy the same content,” Abela said.
Abela does, however, hope to return to campus soon and host the first in-person chapter event.
“Seeing these friendships that we formed virtually over the year, it would be nice to hang out in person,” Abela said.
Abela has been heartened by the support she has received across the UofGH community.
“So many people are willing to engage with us and are really kind and friendly,” said Abela.
That friendly community was one of the many reasons Abela chose to attend UofGH. In 2019, she also received the Founders’ Academic Merit Scholarship—a moment she recalled as life changing.
“I used to work a lot. I knew I would have to pay for my university education,” Abela said. “It really took the edge off, and it allowed me to volunteer more and to do the things that I want to, such as starting the Best Buddies chapter.”
For both Abela and Rotolo, the opportunity to create new friendships while championing inclusivity has been an unforgettable experience.
“My favourite part is meeting new friends at Best Buddies,” Rotolo said. “I have five friends now—the four that I had when I was in high school and then Lauren. I love them. I have been in Best Buddies for 10 years, and Best Buddies will be in my life forever.”
“It’s been a great experience. From the support of the community and the staff, I've been able to make my dream a reality,” Abela added, highlighting the support they received from Best Buddies Canada as well as IGNITE Student Engagement Coordinator Julia Ciampa and Leadership & Advocacy Manager Kristine Galvan.
Best Buddies is part of the many clubs, societies and sports that students can join to get involved at UofGH. Like many other UofGH clubs, Best Buddies is excited to welcome more members in the fall, particularly new students. Upcoming events and member registration is posted on their Instagram page.
“I know starting at university from high school can be very scary, especially when you don't know anyone,” Abela said. “One of our missions is to let everyone know that they have a friend on campus.”