HAVERHILL — Glen Middleton-Cox enjoyed his time in the Best Buddies club at North Andover High School. So while taking classes at Northern Essex Community College where he learned the school was starting a Best Buddies club of its own, he immediately joined.

“I like meeting other students and I enjoy hearing what others have to say,” he said in reference to the club’s Zoom meetings that took place last spring and fall.

The first meeting of this year was held Wednesday. Meetings are held monthly during the school year.

Best Buddies is a nonprofit organization that brings together students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as those on the autism spectrum and students without disabilities who volunteer to participate as buddies.

At Northern Essex, Best Buddies offers a chance for students with disabilities to interact with people outside of their usual social circles and also use campus amenities such as the Sports and Fitness center, where they can play pool, ping pong or foosball, or use the exercise equipment.

The program currently draws students from Andover, North Andover, Lawrence and Newburyport high schools.

Middleton-Cox, 21, of North Andover says he was matched with his buddy, Grace Adam, the club’s current president, and that their conversations usually revolve around their shared love of music.

“We listen to our favorite artists and we chat mostly during our Zoom meetings, of which my favorite parts have been the trivia questions as I’m really good at trivia,” he said.

Best Buddies is in all 50 states and was launched last spring at NECC.

“We are the only community college in Massachusetts that has a Best Buddies chapter,” said club advisor Deborah Regan, who added that both Merrimack College and UMass Lowell have chapters. “We’re looking at another active semester via Zoom meetings and hope that by the end of the semester we can begin meeting in person.”

Each club meeting is a chance for members to get to know each other and have some fun.

At one meeting last spring, members were asked their preferences for summertime activities, such as did they prefer a day at the beach or a day at a lake?

“It’s all about fun and connecting,” Regan said. “At our first Zoom meeting of the year on Wednesday the theme was ‘things we love,’ for Valentine’s Day. Grace Adam, the new president of our club, prepared a funny and lively PowerPoint with music videos and trivia related to Valentine’s Day.’”

The club typically draws its members from programs such as MAICEI (Massachusetts Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Initiative), which provides dual enrollment opportunities for high school students ages 18 to 22 with intellectual disabilities or are on the autism spectrum, and the Transitions Opportunities Program, a collaboration between Andover and North Andover.

“Currently we have 25 students at NECC taking classes through MAICEI, early college, or our sampling cohort program, and of those we have 14 students in Best Buddies,” said Brian Saad, a special education teacher with TOPS.

Ali Bickey, 21, a graduate of North Andover High School who attends the TOPS program, is taking a communication class at Northern Essex through MAICEI and was drawn to the Best Buddies club.

“I joined last fall and got to meet a lot of new kids,” she said. “I love to sing and dance so I’m hoping to be matched with a buddy who has similar interests.”

Best Buddies volunteers have included students who are interested in the helping professions such as human services and others who are drawn to community service such as Emma Atwood, a member of Haverhill High School’s Class of 2019.

Atwood was president of NECC’s Best Buddies club for the fall 2021 semester and is now majoring in criminal justice at UMass Lowell. She continues to stay in touch with her buddy and maintains a friendship that was forged through the program.

“I thought the idea of creating one-on-one friendships with students with disabilities is a really interesting thing,” she said. “Thinking back, I wish we had a Best Buddies program at Haverhill High School.”

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