Monday, January 21, 2019, was a big night at Heritage Christian School.  The girls basketball team was hosting 4A #2 Homestead.  Before the game, Coach Risk Risinger was presented a plaque for his 300th win (a 74-67 win over Cathedral on 1/10), and the team received their second consecutive Circle City Conference Championship trophy.  The Make-a-Wish Foundation made a special presentation at halftime, and the Eagles earned an impressive 62-46 victory over their guests.  The night was made all the more special by the presence of several special guests involved with Heritage’s Best Buddies chapter, a group and collaboration formed thanks to the hard work and servant’s heart of HCS senior Madison Ferguson.

In just two years, the HCS Best Buddies chapter has grown to 43 members.  Formed in conjunction with Gigi’s Playhouse, the group participates in monthly events including holiday parties, game night, basketball games, bowling, etc.  Members are also formed into Buddy pairs who are encouraged to hang-out outside of the official group outings, doing things like going to the mall, watching movies, and playing games.  The goals are to provide the same type of social opportunities offered at a high school to those who may not have the chance to attend one and increase awareness and advocacy for the disabled in students who may otherwise have little interaction with the community.

Madison has served as the chapter’s founder and driving force over the past three years.  Her passion for serving others has remained consistent throughout her life.

“Ever since I was very young, I’ve had friends with disabilities,” said Ferguson.  “In elementary school, I became a peer buddy and spent a lot of time working in the special education department at Woodbrook Elementary.  This included helping my friends off of the bus, eating lunch together, and hanging out at recess.  I was introduced to the Best Buddies program at Clay Middle School where I instantly became involved and realized how important their mission for inclusion and acceptance was to me and many of my friends.   I became Best Buddies Chapter President in 8th grade.  That year, I went on to raise over $1200 for the Best Buddies Friendship Walk and was awarded Indiana Chapter President of the Year.”

“After transferring to Heritage Christian School, I decided to volunteer at Gigi’s Playhouse Down syndrome achievement center,” continued Ferguson.  “Since Heritage does not have a special education program, I was determined to bring Gigi’s Playhouse and Best Buddies together to create a more inclusive community one friendship at a time.  I created a business plan outlining goals, potential events, and funding needs and presented it to both GiGi’s Playhouse and Heritage.  The next step was to contact Best Buddies Indiana and go through the new chapter application process.  After several months of meetings and promotional activities, the HCS Best Buddies chapter was successfully launched in 2017.”

Eva Riddick was also instrumental in bringing the Best Buddies program to Heritage.  As the Deputy Director of Programs for Best Buddies Indiana, she worked closely with Madison to determine how all three organizations (BBI, HCS, and Gigi’s Playhouse) could best work together.

“HCS does not have a special education program,” Riddick said.  “A chapter without a program is typically designated as a “Promoters” Best Buddies chapter.  Promoter chapters empower youth to become advocates for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD) and help open new Best Buddies chapters and programs by organizing special events that promote awareness to the disability rights movement.  Madison was keen on opening a School Friendship chapter similar to the program at her middle and former high school.  In order to accomplish this, she contacted Gigi’s Playhouse in an effort to recruit participants with IDD/DD that would serve as buddies.  Gigi’s Playhouse agreed to the partnership, and Best Buddies Indiana granted her an exception to match participants between HCS and Gigi’s considering the proximity of the two entities (Gigi’s is less than a 5 min car ride from HCS).”

“The HCS chapter of Best Buddies has been a wonderful addition to HCS,” said Kirsten Swingle, Assistant Principal at Heritage Christian School.  “Student leadership, enthusiasm, and follow-through have been very strong. Not only has this been a great leadership experience, but the Best Buddies program fits so well with our core values as a school.”

Two years in, it is safe to say the chapter has been enthusiastically received.  Roughly ten percent of the student body at Heritage is directly involved with the Best Buddies program today.  It has been a blessing for all involved.

“Best Buddies partnership with HCS has opened a myriad of opportunities,” Rioddick said.  “HCS students, who may have previously had limited interaction with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, now have endless opportunities for engagement and interaction.  Similarly, students at Gigi’s who previously had limited interaction with typical peers now have an opportunity to make friends and be included in mainstream society. The partnership has been a win-win for everyone involved!”

The group has been very active this school year.  They participated in the GiGi’s 3.21 walk, enjoyed a Buddy match-party and fall celebration at the pumpkin patch, hosted a Friendsgiving dinner, had a Christmas party, went bowling, and were recognized at the aforementioned Heritage basketball game.  Upcoming events include the Best Buddies Friendship ball, Friendship V-day party, the Best Buddies Friendship Walk, and a grand finale end of year celebration in May.

“There are so many things that make me happy about this program,” Ferguson shared.  “The one that sticks out the most is how passionate my school is about the mission of Best Buddies.  Even though our high school only has 450 people we’ve still managed to be one of the top fundraising schools in Indiana.  We placed in the top five out of all the schools in Indiana, many of which were over ten-times our size.  We have also created so many friendships that I’m sure will last well beyond high school.”

“Our student leaders, specifically Madison Ferguson, have been successful because their leadership stems from a personal core value and commitment to modeling love for all people,” explained Swingle.  “When students can identify a passion and partner it with leadership opportunities and abilities, then the sky is the limit.”

As she prepares to transition into the next phase of her life, handing off the highly impactful program she helped create to the next generation of leaders at Heritage, Madison was asked what message she would like to share with the greater conference community.

“If you see a need in your community, then change it.  You don’t have to be a certain age or go to a certain school to be able to impact the community around you.”