For her senior project, Danielle Roberts, 18, designed and sold colorful greeting cards with short messages printed inside to fellow students, teachers and staff members at Toll Gate. Through her efforts, she raised $600.
Without hesitation, Roberts decided to donate the funds to the school’s Best Buddies program, a volunteer initiative that pairs intellectually and developmentally disabled students with other students to create one-on-one friendships and better integrate those with disabilities. The program was recently named “Outstanding Chapter of the Year” in Rhode Island for the second year in a row.
“Making these cards was a lot of fun, but it was also a lot of hard work,” Roberts said during the last Best Buddies meeting of the school year Monday afternoon. She spoke for nearly 10 minutes in front of more than 70 of her peers. “I’m proud to say the hard work paid off. In the future, I will continue to sell my cards to promote the Best Buddies Toll Gate Chapter.”
After brainstorming with teachers during the beginning of the school year, Roberts, a member of Best Buddies, combined her favorite activities, such as coloring and drawing, to establish a theme for her project. From there, she began crafting cards, often drawing animals such as birds, dogs, cats and horses, on the front of each card. With help from family and friends, she printed the cards and began to sell them.
Just like every other high school senior, Roberts was responsible for doing extensive research on the topic she selected. She used a marketing manual to gather information and learned that promoting the product is crucial to its success. She studied the most effective methods for marketing greeting cards, including advertising them via the Internet.
Roberts turned to Facebook, and tapped into her e-mail account, to advertise the cards. While Principal Stephen Chrabaszcz shared information about Roberts’ efforts to his contacts, Best Buddies President Emily Morris, 16, a junior at Toll Gate, posted it on the Best Buddies Facebook page.
Roberts also spread the word on the intercom at school to alert others of her product. She sold cards in bundles of five for $5.
During her presentation, she pointed to a poster board, which showed examples of her work. Also on display were photos of her making cards at home and selling them at school.
But Roberts did more than promote her product; she promoted friendship, as well. Her parents, who attended the presentation that took place in the school library, said they are beyond proud.
“She did a fantastic job,” said her mother, Cindy. “She worked really hard and made a great donation to Best Buddies.”
Danielle also presented a giant check, which she made from extra poster board, to Morris.
“Best Buddies is a great program,” Danielle said.
Morris agreed. She’s been part of the program for two years and took over as president this year, succeeding her older sister, Sarah, who graduated last year but attended the presentation to cheer on Danielle.
As part of her duties as president, Emily is responsible for helping to pair students within the program. It warms her heart to see strangers become best friends.
“It’s really rewarding to see the friendships you match up develop,” Emily said.
She also said while people initially tend to view the program as a way to improve the lives of special education students, it helps everyone involved, as students learn humility and patience. Plus, said Emily, spending time with her Best Buddy, 10th grader Rachael Ghigliotti, 15, is one of her favorite things to do.
“She’s really caring and doesn’t have a mean bone in her body,” Emily said. “She gives me a hug every time we see each other.”
For Ghigliotti, just being Emily’s Best Buddy is the best part of the program.
“She’s nice and fun to hang out with,” Ghigliotti said, adding that it “makes me feel great” that Toll Gate was honored as “Outstanding Chapter of the Year.”
“We deserve it,” said Ghigliotti.
Carol Allen, Toll Gate’s intensive special education teacher and advisor for Best Buddies, feels the same. She learned of the honor May 5 during the annual best Buddies Walk through Garden City in Cranston.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Allen said. “They were making announcements and then they said, ‘Toll Gate Best Buddies.’ I never thought we’d win two years in a row. I was thrilled. The kids work so hard and they are what make this successful because they are so committed. They interact, share stories and just chill together. That’s what kids do.”
Allen, who attended the walk with about one-third of Toll Gate’s 70 Best Buddies members, said while students have always been great when dealing with the special needs population, she’s noticed more of a unified community since starting the program three years ago.
“The kids talk in the hallways, they say hi to one another – everyone is included,” said Allen. “There’s a wonderful relationship with the students.”
The program, she said, not only keeps special needs students active during school hours; it extends beyond that. Students often gather after school or on weekends to spend time with their buddies.
Whether they are hanging out in pairs or groups, they are going shopping, seeing movies, attending hockey games, enjoying picnics, and more. Recently, members enjoyed a trip to Thayer Arena for an ice skating party.
“It’s just fun in general,” said Zach Fontaine, 16, a 10th grader who has been with Best Buddies for two years. “I get to hang out with all my friends,” adding that he thought Danielle’s presentation was “really good.”
Senior Katie Branca, 18, praised Danielle’s efforts, as well. She described Danielle as “fun” and “awesome.”
“Basically she’s all that,” Branca said.
The funds Danielle donated will be used to support a variety of group activities. And while Allen is working on a final count of funds raised at the walk, she is guessing it will be about $1,000.
Aside from that, Allen and the Best Buddies members are gearing up for the 2013 Dare to Dream Student Leadership at the University of Rhode Island May 22. Toll Gate students will be presenting on how to start a Best Buddies chapter at school.
“It’s been an exciting year,” Allen said. “It’s very rewarding for myself because I see such growth from the young men and women in the club. It builds character and maturity and helps them have compassion and learn how to give back.”