‘Best Buddies’ program helps disabled adults build relationships, acquire social skills

In March, Mira Loma became the first school in the San Juan Unified School District to establish a Best Buddies Chapter. Bender helped start the chapter. 



Kylie Huang, Mira Loma High School

In the United States, up to one in four adults have a disability. However, they are often unable to acquire the resources they need to build relationships and learn social skills. 

The Best Buddies Program aims to fix that. According to its website, the program empowers special needs individuals by helping them create friendships, live independently, improve social skills, and stand up for themselves. 

In the month of June alone, there are several activities planned for participants, including middle and high school hangouts, as well as virtual events. 

However, the largest activity Best Buddies holds each year is the Friendship Walk, which is also one of the biggest fundraisers for the nonprofit. The proceeds raised are used to help special needs individuals live on their own, build their public speaking skills, and more. 

This year, the Friendship Walk in the Sacramento community was held on Apr. 29 at the North Natomas Regional Park. One of the participants was Lilly Perazzo, a senior at Mira Loma High School.  

“My best friend Tyler (Salazar) is a student in a special education classroom (and) the teacher Mrs. (Marissa) Bender recommended I attend, so me and Tyler made plans to go together,” Perazzo said. 

In March, Mira Loma became the first school in the San Juan Unified School District to establish a Best Buddies Chapter. Bender helped start the chapter. 

“We found out about the Friendship Walk, and knew that even though we had limited time, we wanted to participate,” Bender said. “Honestly, I did not expect to raise the level of funds that we raised in our first year. Our Mira Loma and SJUSD community is always supportive.”

In Mira Loma’s first year of participation, the school managed to raise $2,195 and placed fifth out of the 64 total teams in terms of the amount of money raised. Perazzo herself raised a total of $1,050 for the program, placing seventh out of 100 total contributors. 

For Perazzo, it was an especially rewarding experience. 

“I absolutely loved it,” she said. “I adore all of the students I’ve come to know and spent my days with. My best friend (Tyler) is among those people…. We were lucky enough to cut the ribbon and be interviewed by the news. He really enjoyed it, and I did too. We really liked walking with the other classes and teams, (and) we met a lot of nice people.”

The Walk also provided an opportunity for others in the community to show their support and help raise funds, Sumiti Mehta, who attended the Walk in her neighborhood, said. 

“I chose to participate because I strongly believe in the inclusion and friendship mission that Best Buddies promote and support,” she said. “In my view, the walk benefits the special needs community by creating awareness. It also benefits the community through fundraising, which would be used by Best Buddies to further their mission.”

Bender said the opportunity to see many graduates from her program was especially meaningful. 

“It felt like a family reunion in many ways,” she said. “The students are in the ILS (Independent Living Skills) class for the majority of the school day for all four years of high school and we form a special bond. It was an opportunity for everyone involved to walk, listen to music, play games and hang out.”

Mira Loma has been a strong supporter of the special needs community. In addition to having a Best Buddies chapter, the school is also a Special Olympics Unified Champion School and has many clubs where special education students are able to participate. For example, this year the student body hosted a Unified Sports-A-Rama, where special education students participated in the Tube Dive event. 

After participating this year in the Best Buddies Friendship Walk, Perazzo feels the experience is worth recommending to others. 

“The money raised does so much for inclusion, and it’s very fulfilling to save money for a good cause,” Perazzo said. “I loved my experience there and I’m sure others would too if they gave it a shot.”