Two students found that creating inclusivity for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities starts with friendship through Best Buddies. Lauren Abela and Jessica Rotolo are the founders of the Best Buddies club at Humber College and the University of Guelph-Humber

Best Buddies is a nationally recognized charity that aims to support one-on-one friendships with individuals with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities. It was first founded in 1989 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., by Anthony Kennedy Shriver. Best Buddies later was established in Canada in 1993 and became a registered charity in 1995

Since its establishment, it has grown nationwide with over 250 chapters at high schools and universities/colleges. Through annual fundraising events over the years, they have raised over $25 million. In June 2022, Abela and Rotolo helped Best Buddies Canada raise over $580,000 while volunteering at the “Thrill of Ascot” fundraising event.

Lauren Abela (right) and Jessica Rotolo (left) at a Best Buddies event.

Lauren Abela (left) and Jessica Rotolo (right) at a Best Buddies event. (Lauren Abela/Best Buddies)

Abela is a fourth-year student in the Psychology program at Guelph-Humber. She first became involved in Best Buddies in 11th grade.

“It was unfortunate that most students with disabilities at my school were separated from the classroom,” said Abela.  

Through word-of-mouth, she heard about a meeting at her school and decided to check it out. Abela has been with them ever since and stays connected with many friends she met in the high school program. Once Abela got to post-secondary she noticed there was no Best Buddies chapter, so she reached out to Best Buddies Canada. Coincidentally, Abela wasn’t the only one wanting to start the club. 

Rotolo is a graduate of Humber’s Community Integration through Co-operative Education (CICE) program as well as an actor, model, artist and self-advocate for the Down syndrome community. The CICE program is a certificate program at Humber that provides adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities an opportunity to experience college life and learn important skills. Similar to Abela, Rotolo has been involved in Best Buddies since high school. In the fall of 2019, Rotolo also reached out to Best Buddies Canada about starting a chapter. 

After receiving both emails from Abela and Rotolo, Vicki MacCrimmon and Deanna Alakoozai from Best Buddies Canada‘s head office connected the girls. They met each other for the first time in front of the Starbucks on campus and found they had so many similarities. 

Both enjoy having dinner, watching movies and promoting Best Buddies Canada as nationwide ambassadors of the nonprofit.

“It was just an instant connection and we started something beautiful together,” said Abela.

Since their first meetup in September 2019, the two have worked hard to grow the Best Buddies chapter. Unfortunately, they were not able to host any in-person events on campus in March 2020 due to the pandemic. Abela and Rotolo persevered by reverting to online Zoom calls and Instagram live streams. Throughout the lockdown, they hosted live streams with everything from makeup tutorials to cooking videos.  

With school back in session, they were happy to have hosted their first-ever in-person kickoff event on Sept. 28 where over 100 students participated in games, live music, a raffle and free snacks. 

Lauren on the left and Jessica on the right speaking at their kickoff event in the Humber LRC Lobby

Lauren Abela (left) and Jessica Rotolo (right) giving a speech at the kickoff event. (Alexandra Ellison/GH360)

Most recently, they received $7,000 from the University of Guelph’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Enhancement fund where they hosted an event this semester to promote inclusivity through a campaign Jessica participated in back in March. The event was called “Love Means…” a series of portraits displaying the many forms of love that adults with Down syndrome experience.

The University of Guelph-Humber lobby showcasing the "Love Means..." event.

The University of Guelph-Humber lobby showcasing the “Love Means…” event. (George Nikitaras/University of Guelph-Humber)

Abela says that Rotolo has been instrumental in providing support for the chapter. Many colleges and universities’ Best Buddies programs partner with an outside organization to find individuals to pair with students. The Humber and Guelph-Humber chapter is sanctioned through Ignite, the student union governing Humber and Guelph-Humber students, which means all students must attend the school. 

Lauren and Jessica speaking at the Love Means event.

Lauren Abela (left) and Jessica Rotolo (right) speaking at the “Love Means…” event. (George Nikitaras/University of Guelph-Humber)

Luckily, Rotolo was able to recruit many members with intellectual and developmental disabilities through the CICE program. Rotolo is grateful for her time in the program.

“I learned how to be an advocate and a leader in my community but also learned life and computer skills. I also made a lot of new friends there” said Rotolo.

There is still room to grow to create inclusivity and support for these individuals. Abela is on the Board of Directors for the Ignite, the student union, and wants to be a voice for people with disabilities. She believes the school should start internally.

“I feel like there should be more organized social activities. Such as a permanent Resource Center for students with disabilities for them to engage socially and learn soft skills outside of the classroom” said Abela

On a greater scale, there needs to be more support for these individuals outside of the school community

Rotolo, for example, says she has dreams of moving out of her parent’s home. Her parents would love for her to have the opportunity to experience independence. 

“We would love for Jessica to eventually move out, unfortunately, the housing situation is absolutely horrible. There’s nowhere for Jessica to go and the government has to put that into place” said Rotolo’s mother, Dorlean Lieghfars-Rotolo.

Rotolo receives funding through the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), unfortunately, Rotolo’s mother says it’s not enough. For many, it forces them to live in poverty. This program doesn’t allow individuals to improve their situation. If they can work, ODSP will deduct income support after earning more than $200 per month. Rotolo is starting a new job as an assistant at a preschool; unfortunately, much of her earnings will be deducted from the government.  

Devanshu Narang is a local candidate in the municipal election in the North Etobicoke area who wants to educate employers about how they can include employees with developmental and intellectual disabilities in the workplace. Narang was a mechanical engineer for many years and was awarded “Top 75 Immigrant of the Year” by Canadian Immigrant Magazine. He says during his time in Mumbai, India there were many places where they hired and trained people with disabilities for various work.

“These people were so joyful and so confident in being an important part of this society,” said Narang.  

Although there is a lot of work to be done, Abela and Rotolo are grateful for their friendship through Best Buddies. It’s one Rotolo’s mother expects will last a lifetime.

“I know that Lauren and Jessica will be dancing at each other’s weddings, that’s for sure.”

Lauren Abela (left) and Jessica Rotolo (right) holding a poster for the "Love Means..." event.

Lauren Abela (left) and Jessica Rotolo (right) holding a poster for the “Love Means…” event. (Lauren Abela/Best Buddies)