Back on June 13, Kathleen Moran said goodbye to Cheshire High School in an emotional graduation ceremony, but she still had one more opportunity last month to represent a CHS program near and dear to her heart.
For the third straight year, Moran traveled among seven Cheshire students to the University of Indiana for the Best Buddies International Leadership Conference held from July 19-22. Best Buddies strives to improve the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).
“I was so excited because not all graduating seniors are allowed to go to the conference,” said Moran. “This trip is a life-changing experience.”
In her last high-school conference, Moran was excited to share in a special honor. After participating in the Opening Ceremonies, the CHS contingent of Moran, Christine Anthony, Alec Frione, Kaylee Fell, Paige Kaczmarek, Michael Kozlowski, and Olivia Santoro were informed that their club would be receiving the Best High School Chapter in Connecticut Award.
“It was a total surprise for us. We found out Friday night because we had to be there in the morning to get it (the award),” explained Moran. “The honor means so much. We don’t see this club this as a community service project. We volunteer because we love it.”
Along with being recognized on the second day of the event, the students attended educational sessions with members from Connecticut. The program manager spoke to the group about topics such as fundraising and leadership and people also talked about their specific club experiences.
“Connecticut has one of the biggest chapters, so we were able to share what we do and help others be successful,” stated Moran.
Students next gathered in an auditorium where people were recognized for having raised $10,000 in their organizations. People also participated in a National Friendship Walk to an athletic field.
“There were fireworks there and food and drinks for people,” said Moran.
On the final day, Cheshire students attended an event called World Cafe. Representatives from around the U.S. and other countries were able to talk about their clubs and discus ideas.
“It was a great experience to see what people struggle with and what we can do to make us better,” explained Kozlowski, who will be a high school senior this fall. “We have talked about growing our chapter (at CHS). We are going to take what other chapters have done and bring it to Cheshire.”
To wrap up the event, people came together for the closing ceremonies, including a dance party.
“There was a DJ, basketball games, and other fun stuff,” Moran said.
Moran takes pride in speaking about what Best Buddies has meant to her life. Since she was in first grade, her family has been involved at Dodd Middle School or CHS.
“It is kind of overwhelming,” said Moran, whose brother Brendan and sister Shannon participated in Best Buddies before her. “It (the legacy) made me want to be like them. Being in Best Buddies with my older sister showed me what I wanted to do in high school.”
As a youngster, Moran helped children with IDD in Cheshire Parks and Recreation therapeutic classes.
“I think it (volunteering) has been such a big part of my life because I have neighbors and family members who have IDD,” said Moran. “I was really excited to join Best Buddies. I remember when I was in sixth grade and toured Dodd. I saw the activities and knew that I was going to part of that club.”
In CHS Best Buddies, students are paired up as buddies for at least one group activity a month, but many choose to interact on a daily basis.
“Best Buddies is an everyday activity for me,” said Moran.
In high school, Moran was assigned to work with Hannah O’Dea and Ally Gomes. She credits Gomes for getting her involved with Best Buddies in seventh grade.
“They mean so much to me,” said Moran. “I see Hannah every day and we talk on the phone over Face Time. I also stay in touch with Ally because we’ve known each other for so long.”
Like Moran, Alexa Cofrancesco is another recent CHS graduate who enjoyed her experience in Best Buddies.
“My mom is a special ed teacher and I’ve always had a passion for helping people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” explained Cofrancesco.
Cofrancesco, who became a peer buddy as a sophomore, was paired with her friend Cate Fleury for two years. She was introduced to freshman Paige Marschner last fall.
“Everyone knows Cate. You can’t be with her and not be smiling. She is always telling jokes. She taught me to not be so serious,” stated Cofrancesco. “Paige is so nice and funny, too.”
In the 2018-19 school year, CHS Best Buddies recruited new members and put an emphasis on inclusion in the student body.
“Seeing people being accepted at a lunch table, basketball and football games, and in the hallway meant so much because I think we were making a difference,” explained Moran. “No one was making fun of anyone.”
To raise money for the club, students created t-shirts inspired by the movie “The Incredibles” and sold them to members.
“It was great,” said Cofrancesco. “People wore them (the shirts) to school and meetings.”
In a highlight last year, CHS was recognized for raising the most money for the CT Best Buddies Friendship Walk on October 27 at Quinnipiac University’s North Haven campus. Cheshire students set a goal of collecting $5,000, but ended up earning $9,000.
“It was nice to know that our hard work went to a good cause and that the money will be used to fund other Best Buddies programs around the state,” added Cofrancesco. “Some schools don’t have the resources that we have in Cheshire.”
CHS Best Buddies held a Dunk-A-Cop fundraiser at the 2018 Fall Festival and ran a Duct-Tape-A-Teacher event in October.
“It was amazing to see what we can accomplish and our outreach in the community,” reflected Kozlowski. “We are very well supported by the people around us.”
Moran also enjoyed seeing her friends become involved in Ram Roasters, a group of special-education students who sell coffee and tea around CHS during school days.
“We came up with that name at the beginning of the year,” recalled Moran. “The school really supports it (the activity).”
Along with her work in Best Buddies, Moran volunteered to help with Unified Sports programs for soccer, basketball, and volleyball.
“I had to give up varsity sports due to injuries in my sophomore year, but it was so great to be part of this program and see students get to play like everybody else,” said Moran.
In heading to college this fall, both Cofrancesco and Moran plan to look into Best Buddies programs. Moran wants to major in special education at Assumption College (Massachusetts), while Cofrancesco will study nursing at Sacred Heart University.
“It is definitely really hard to say goodbye to CHS because we are leaving buddies that we’ve formed relationships with over the years,” said Cofrancesco. “I’m also going to miss my peers and advisors.”
While similarly sad about leaving her friends, Moran is comforted that her younger sister Meghan will continue to volunteer in Best Buddies as a junior this fall.
“I know that I can always come back,” added Moran.