GRAFTON, Ohio — Dozens of teens in Northeast Ohio are helping bridge the divide for their fellow classmates with disabilities and embracing the differences that might otherwise put distance between us.
In the process, they’re making sure every student, regardless of their ability, has a seat at the table.
That wasn’t always the case for Austin Hugo. The school day used to feel isolated.
“Never got the chance to meet new people," said Hugo.
That was before he got involved with Best Buddies.
"The Best Buddy program got me a chance to meet new people and experience new things," said Hugo.
Hugo joined forces with 80 of his classmates at Midview High School to create a more inclusive environment.
"Some of our buddies used to eat alone and I know a lot of us now we all eat together, we make sure we're interacting and so no one feels left out," said Rachel Thomas.
Students with disabilities, and their peers without, are not only side-by-side in the cafeteria, they're participating in activities during the school day and building relationships out in the community.
"They're going to Chipotle together, they go bowling together, they're going to the high school football games together," said Meredith Udris, a Best Buddies adviser.
In the process, those teens with disabilities are getting a typical high school experience.
"I am happy. I am thankful. I am happy, so excited to come here to school," said Morgen Hall, one of the students in the Best Buddies program.
At the same time, their classmates are gaining a better understanding of what it's like to live with challenges.
"We just have to be more open minded. They're just as smart and just as capable as the rest of us and sometimes even more so, and they're a lot more open to meeting new people and it's really important for us to keep that in mind," said Thomas.
Senior Rachel Thomas has noticed a major shift since Midview High School started its Best Buddies chapter.
"I've seen a much bigger change in the way everybody interacts and everybody is more comfortable," said Thomas.
It's a feeling that Austin Hugo appreciates.
"Even though they may be different, within my heart I feel like they're my family. The Best Buddy program feels like a second home to me," said Hugo.
Best Buddies has been so successful at the high school, the Midview School District just launched a similar program for its middle school students.
This story is part of A Better Land, an ongoing series that investigates Northeast Ohio's deep-seated systemic problems. Additionally, it puts a spotlight on the community heroes fighting for positive change in Cleveland and throughout the region. If you have an idea for A Better Land story, tell us here.