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MU Best Buddies Chapter Partners with Manasquan School

Monmouth’s newly established Best Buddies Chapter has partnered with the Manasquan school district to develop programming for students living with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). This partnership follows the club’s recent inception in June of 2021.

Best Buddies is an international organization dedicated to enhancing the social, economic, and physical well-being of individuals with IDD. It has nearly 3,000 chapters worldwide.

Danielle Frith, Specialist Professor for the Department of Special Education and Monmouth alum, was encouraged by a former Monmouth student to start a chapter.

“This chapter originated through a conversation with one of my special education graduate students, Lily Occhipinti, who is very involved and committed to Best Buddies within the state of New Jersey. Because of my discussions with Lily, I was determined to establish a chapter at Monmouth,” began Frith.

Frith initiated conversations with her special education department colleagues, which led her to connecting with David Fasolino ‘22, the inaugural president of Best Buddies.

“I learned that bringing Best Buddies to campus was something David was also interested in accomplishing. So, we held our first brainstorming meeting in June of 2021 and the rest is history!”
Even upon graduating, Fasolino has high hopes for the club’s future. “I hope Best Buddies is able to grow and expand not just at Monmouth University but in the surrounding middle and high schools where people are exposed to our chapter and see it as a beacon of inclusivity.”

“Our mission is very clear and important— we strive to foster inclusion. By building friendships between students with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities on campus and around the Monmouth University community, authentic connections are formed, which promote self-confidence and self-esteem for all,” elaborated Frith.

Current Best Buddies President and fifth year elementary education student, Lauren Karabin, discussed how the club’s mission guides the programs they pursue, like their work with the Manasquan school district.

“Our club is fairly new and a main goal of ours is to foster stronger relationships in our community with groups, schools, and organizations with IDD individuals,” started Karabin. “This goal started manifesting last fall when we began working with Manasquan. We painted pumpkins, played Kahoot, went to the mall, went bowling, and even had a holiday party together. This Manasquan program is truly the best young adult program I have ever witnessed.”

According to Karabin, the program enables these young adults to practice and apply everyday life skills while having the chance to impact their community. For instance, she said, “They run a Kindness Cafe each Monday from 9-11 a.m. at Blend on Main in Manasquan, which is just one of the many amazing things they do!”

Karabin attributes the success of Best Buddies’ partnership to the cooperation with the school’s teachers and coaches. “The teachers and coaches in that class have been so great communicating with our club and opening their doors to us. I am so grateful to work with the Manasquan class and appreciate all they have done to help Best Buddies achieve our goals,” she said.

Jennifer Steffich, Director of Special Services, was at the forefront of fostering this relationship between Manasquan and Monmouth’s Best Buddies chapter.

“I am new to the district, having just begun in July; however, in my previous district we had a partnership with Best Buddies. So, when I started my position in Manasquan, I wanted to bring the Best Buddies program to the Center for Leaning and Independence (CLI) adult program,” said Steffich.

Nicole Pichetto, teacher at the Center for Learning and Independence at Manasquan High School, discussed how the program has played out in the classroom.

“So far, our collaboration has been wonderful. The Best Buddies have bowled with us, met us at the mall for Christmas shopping, been to our building for games and painting pumpkins, and went out with us in the community for ice cream! My students love when they spend time with Best Buddies,” Pichetto emphasized. “It gives them something to look forward to and they love hanging with kids their age.”

According to Pichetto, the parents have shared similar sentiments about the school’s relationship with Best Buddies.

Mary Miller, parent to one of the participating students, said, “I think it’s a wonderful program— a great opportunity for both Manasquan and Monmouth students to participate in things they normally wouldn’t.”

She continued, “Oftentimes, we don’t go out as a family. Nonetheless, we attended a Friendsgiving this past November, and Jack did something he hasn’t done in a long time: he took off his earbuds and began speaking with someone he had never met. I am confident that this has a direct correlation to the Best Buddies program. They have brought him out of his comfort zone.”

Miller concluded, “A parent cannot overestimate how wonderful it is to watch your child grow in this way. I think the greatest thing a person can do is to give back, and if students take opportunities such as these to help in this way, they are most definitely giving back.”