Buddies Without Borders Helps Youths Lead the Way to Inclusion | Easterseals Arc of Northeast Indiana
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Jayla, and, from left, Noah, Dalton and Blair Cottier discuss getting-acquainted questions, such as “If you won a lottery, what would you do with the money?”
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Dalton, left, and Britton listen during a group discussion.
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Jet listens during a group discussion at Buddies Without Borders.
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Noah, left, and Dalton mull over discussion questions during the February meeting of Buddies Without Borders.
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Harper, holding a stuffed animal, sits between Angel and Abby during the group discussion.
Abby, right, laughs as Angel plays with a decorated Valentine’s cookie.
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Angel, left, complained about how hard the cookie frosting was. Danielle Jones agrees and pretends to squirt the tube of frosting at her. Abby, seated, and Blair Cottier, watch and laugh.

About once a month, kids from Easterseals Arc’s Mini Dreamers and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Fort Wayne meet for fun, crafts, or visits to area attractions. Whatever activity is on their agenda, their mission is having fun and getting to know each other.

This is the second school year that kids from the two clubs have met in a program they themselves named Buddies Without Borders.

The goal is “to build friendships between kids, whether they have a disability or not,” Easterseals Arc staff member Danielle Jones explained. “It’s giving Boys & Girls Club kids, where they may not have a lot of experience or interaction with kids with disabilities, a chance to realize that even though they’re not typical, we can be friends with them.”

Although attendance fluctuates a bit, there are about a dozen young people in Buddies without Borders. They are middle-school or older elementary school students. The group is about evenly divided among participants from each of the two organizations.

At a meeting in February 2024, the youths played a game that was really an approach to learning about one another, a kind of subtle tutoring in the art of conversation. In small groups, they answered questions such as, “What would you do if you won a lottery?” Then the follow-up: Young people revealed what they learned about the others, from their instincts for generosity to their favorite tourist destinations.

After they finished, they all regathered around a large table for an edible craft: decorating cookies for Valentine’s Day.

“It’s helping build (the young people’s) sense of inclusion for people with disabilities and without disabilities,” said Blair Cottier, the inclusion director for Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Indiana. “Some of our kids (in Boys & Girls Club) have never been around kids with disabilities, so we are trying to make sure these kids are exposed to all different kinds of people, all different kinds of events, all different kinds of things.”

Bringing people together from both clubs succeeds well enough for the kids to mingle smoothly and have fun during their meetings. And there are signs it might extend beyond the meetings.

Abby, one of the Mini Dreamers, told her mother that Jayla, from the Boys & Girls Club, was one of her friends when they saw Jayla at a store. Later Abby also said her favorite part of the meetings is being with Angel, a member of the Boys & Girls Club. Both Cottier and Jones said Abby and Angel had exchanged phone numbers, and the girls had contacted one another outside the Buddies meetings.

The activities – and the way the adult leaders choose them – make a difference, too. The adults try to give the kids as much say as possible in choosing what they do.

Mini Dreamer Noah says that he likes making decorations the best, whether cookies for Valentine’s Day or Christmas cards for people who live in Kingston. Abby said she likes the arts and crafts best, next to spending time with Angel.

“I like helping out people,” said Jayla, from the Boys & Girls Club. “I like making people laugh and having fun.”

Angel, now in her second year of Buddies, said, “It’s really cool to interact with people I usually wouldn’t and to learn about people with disabilities.”