KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Middle school can be an awkward time when students are going through a lot of changes and social life is limited to cliques, but that's not true at one West Knoxville school.
Manhattan Carlen is a 7th-grade student who promotes special friendships.
She said West Valley Middle School is committed to kindness.
"We go by something called Pack Pride and show our kindness anywhere we go. So I really hope lots of people will join this and go the extra mile," she said.
Manhattan hopes her fellow students will join Best Buddies.
The program pairs typical students and those with disabilities in one-to-one friendships.
Manhattan Carlen found out about the University of Tennessee Best Buddies program through her family's catering business. She thought it would work at her middle school.
"I really was like, ok, I really need to do this. East Tennessee needs more of this to show how great we are as a community," she said.
Best Buddies enriches the lives of people with integrated employment, inclusive living and leadership development. The middle school chapter will focus on one-to-one friendships.
Saasha Shirooni-Moore is a special education teacher and the teacher sponsor for Best Buddies.
"She approached myself and another special education teacher last year about starting a chapter of Best Buddies at West Valley Middle School and we just thought it was a great idea. I had never heard of it before," Shirooni-Moore said. "She has a lot of great ideas and I'm just happy to help her."
Best Buddies International sets standards for local chapters. It sets expectations for planned interactions and a system for reporting it. It includes a fundraising minimum which Manhattan met.
She does extra chores and held a fundraiser.
"I did a lemonade/bake sale. We took donations and sold cookies and brownies and lemonade," Manhattan said.
An interest meeting is planned for later in September, then an online interview will match the buddies based on common interests.
"I hope a lot of people will join and we'll get kids paired up and foster some great relationships," Shirooni-Moore said.
Manhattan shared her vision for the program.
"Not to treat them like they are anything different. And to make sure that they feel included and happy," Manhattan said.
The teacher sponsor said, "She's just a really great girl, always taking the time to be kind to others, and I think she's the perfect girl for the job."
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