Maddie Hughes and Josh Tenbrinke are still best buddies years after graduating from the official Best Buddies program.

"Josh has completely changed my life," Hughes said. "He is such an inspiration. Every day I go to see him, it's smiles — no matter what ... To see someone who has so many limitations and so many barriers, to look at me and say, 'It's okay, we're okay.' He completely changes the way I look at things, at life in general.

The two met in high school in Nova Scotia through the Best Buddies program, which pairs students with special needs with a peer buddy to do activities together and hang out as a group.

There are Best Buddies chapters around the world — including a new one at UPEI organized by Hughes, who's also a third-year nursing student.

"We pair students with special needs up with a peer buddy and then from there they go on their own," she said. "And so it's just a friendship."

The program started out small last year with just five pairs of buddies, but it's since doubled in size.

Hughes said the program has been a success.

"We have some buddies that are so shy ... And now they're here and they're laughing and they're talking to everybody," she said.

"You see them grow.  It's so rewarding."

Breaking down barriers

Tenbrinke, her buddy, has cerebral palsy and a hearing impairment.

"I remember the first time I met him," she said. "He was signing me all this stuff and I was looking at him with the biggest eyes thinking, 'I have no idea what you are saying.'"

'I mean we're all human, we're all the same.' — Maddie Hughes

He taught her words by pointing to picture in a book, and she took courses to get her intermediate level sign language.

"We did a ton of stuff ... We went for supper, any events that were at our high school. He loved the movies," she said.

"He taught me so, so much ... And brought so much joy to my life."

Hughes said the Best Buddies program also changed the atmosphere at their high school.

"Before we had Best Buddies, you had the special education or that kind of department and then you had the regular classes. And that was one of the things that I really wanted to break and we did," she said.

"I mean we're all human, we're all the same. Just because some people might need a little bit more help, there's no reason why we need to put a barrier up there."
Best Buddies at UPEI

The UPEI Best Buddies had a Valentine's Day part as one of their group activities. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

'Spread the word to end the word'

Now, Hughes and the Best Buddies are focusing on a new project to raise awareness about students with special needs.

They'll be collecting signatures on campus as part of a pledge against the use of the "R word."

"Again, the R word started with Josh," said Hughes. "We were reading a book and he said, 'That word hurts' ... The R word is retard or retarded ... The R word pledge is 'spread the word to end the word.'"

Hughes did a similar campaign several years ago at her high school and got 600 pledges. The group aims to collect 1,000 signatures at UPEI on March 4.

Maddie Hughes R-word pledge

Maddie Hughes and the Best Buddies group will be asking UPEI faculty, students and staff to sign the R-word pledge. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Best buddies for 2 years

Kate Philip and Rachael Loggie have been Best Buddies since the program started at UPEI.

"[We] go out for lunch, bowling and we do dancing a lot," said Loggie.

Philip said they also do Zumba, dance, listen to music and watch videos on YouTube.

"Rachael's pretty great and we have a lot of fun together," she said. "It is one of the highlights of my week."

There are three other chapters of Best Buddies in schools on P.E.I. — at Bluefield High School, Central Queens Elementary and East Wiltshire Intermediate.

UPEI Best Buddies Kate Philip and Rachael Loggie

Kate Philip and Rachael Loggie have been part of Best Buddies at UPEI since the group started. (Nancy Russell/CBC)