The last thing Sherri Nolan wants for any of her special education students is for them to feel like the “other” – the outsider who doesn’t fit in at school, who is teased or in any way made to feel less “normal” than everybody else. Which is why she’s club sponsor for the Las Cruces High School Best Buddies Club. A chapter of the national Best Buddies organization, this club matches regular education students with special needs students, fostering sharing, fun, empathy and activities, breaking down barriers in the process. Sherri, an involved educator who also works with the National Education Association both locally and at the state level and Read Across America, works tirelessly to support the high school group, letting the kids take the lead and offering guidance as needed. Her reward? Seeing relationships blossom that would otherwise never exist, relationships that are a powerful force for good for all of the students involved, no matter their intellectual or developmental status.
What inspires you to volunteer?
My special education students and their peer buddies inspire me to volunteer. All of my students are intellectually challenged and some have other disabilities such as autism and are language impaired. It is difficult for them to form relationships at school. Our Las Cruces High School Bulldawg Best Buddies Club encourages diversity-inclusion-acceptance throughout our community and school. Best Buddies International, which our club is associated with, is the world’s largest organization dedicated to ending the social, physical and economic isolation of people with Intellectual Developmental Disabilities, among other disabilities. Through this club, my students are able to form meaningful friendships with their peers and feel valued by our school and society. Having the opportunity to watch and help put these dynamics in motion is beyond amazing.
Describe your volunteer role.
As a sponsor of the Las Cruces High School Best Buddies Club, I do many, many things for the club, that go well beyond the classroom and the school day. It is difficult for me to separate the things I do during the day, throughout the week, and even during the summer. For me it is all connected and important to the members and to the school. Personally, I am not about what I do for the club or needing praise. To me, it is all about the kids, ALL the kids.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
Probably the most rewarding part is seeing the friendships my students are able to make with their regular education peers that they would not have been able to otherwise. It is a joy to help and watch all of them plan events and work together, go on field trips together, eat lunch together, say Hi and hug their friends in the hallway during class changes. My students are no longer “those kids” they are a part of the school society, they all treat each other with love and respect and expect the same from others.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
The most valuable lesson I have learned about being a volunteer is being able to work in tandem with both students and adults. An integral part of our Best Buddies Club is allowing the students – both the regular education and the special needs students be able to “drive” the club. By this, I mean myself and my other two colleagues, Grace Brock and Jon DeBord, whom I work collaboratively with, we guide the club/students and advise them along the way, but ultimately we want them to do the planning, the primary work, and the fundraising. It is their club, we act as the liaisons, help where asked and needed.
Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?
I am most excited about a reunion celebration we are planning this fall. Our chapter was recognized at the Best Buddies International Leadership Conference as the Outstanding Chapter for New Mexico during the 2018-2019 school year. We are planning to invite our Best Buddies Alumni to our celebration. It will be great to see our former members and to let them know how their efforts helped lead the way to our club’s recognition. Along with this celebration, we have many things planned for the whole year, including the Project Unify Special Olympics, work at the local soup kitchen- Casa de Peregrinos Food Bank, field trips, collect Dimes for Downs for our local families, the buddy walk and the highlight of the year will be our district wide Best Buddies Prom. I am so very proud of each and every one of our amazing club members current and former and it is my honor to work with them all.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
If as a society, we don’t step up and help, who will? As a citizen of the world, I feel that if I don’t do my part to give back in whatever way I can, then I have failed as a human being. One of the things my parents taught me, was to leave the world a better place than I found it. This of course can be accomplished in many ways and through different avenues. Throughout my life in volunteer work that I have done and continue to do, I have strived to do that. I have never left feeling empty, my heart is always full.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Sherri? Find local volunteer opportunities.