Sometimes life brings us full circle & allows us to give back in powerful ways. Cole Slate’s experiences with Best Buddies in high school channeled his passion into helping people with disabilities for years to come.
You may have heard about the teens with Down Syndrome who became the Queen and King of their prom, or the young man with Autism who helps the basketball team at his school. But what does it take to break down the social barriers that exist for young people with special needs?
Enter Best Buddies, a non-profit organization that pairs people with special needs with typical peers, fostering friendship, socialization, job coaching and leadership for participants. Kids with disabilities benefit through acceptance and inclusion, and their typical peers benefit by exposure to exceptionalities. Best Buddies is an international program offered in middle schools, high schools, and colleges. (See www.BestBuddies.org for all programs)
Local business leader Cole Slate, a REALTOR® with EXIT Real Estate Gallery, is passionate about the organization and puts a lot of energy into engaging the local community. Cole has been involved with Best Buddies ever since he was a high school student at Bartram Trail, where he was President of the local chapter. During college he continued working with people with special needs and was an intern at the Arc of Alachua County. When he returned to St. Johns he was a paraprofessional for ESE students at Liberty Pines Elementary. Once again, his life brought him full circle, and today Cole continues to support Best Buddies through fundraising and awareness efforts as the Best Buddies Jacksonville Advisory Board Chairman.
As Best Buddies Executive Director Erika Hatch says, “Cole’s individual efforts as the chairman of the Advisory Board have contributed to the making of hundreds of friendships for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. His heart is as big as his truck!” (A reference to Cole’s monster truck you may have seen around town).
Cole says he has always loved spending time with people with special needs, and treats them exactly like he treats others so they do not feel excluded. “To be quite honest, I can’t remember far back enough to when I had a different perspective on people with special needs. I have been working, and volunteering with people with special needs since I was in second grade.”
He attributes his attitude to a twist of fate that has affected him subconsciously. His mother, who was an elementary teacher, was told during her pregnancy that her baby was going to have such severe Down Syndrome that he wasn’t supposed to survive. But she decided to proceed with the pregnancy and ultimately Cole was fine. Knowing that he could be in their shoes has made all the difference in how Cole perceives the world. “Best Buddies provides intangible benefits. Just seeing first-hand the happiness, smiles, and excitement on a buddy’s faces during an activity is worth every minute.”
Cole’s involvement with Best Buddies has not only created lifelong friendships with former buddies like Trey and Christian whom he sometimes sees at Best Buddies events now, but has also inspired him to give back to education by funding a scholarship at his alma mater, the University of Florida, and participating in fundraisers for the program locally.
“Trey was my buddy in high school. Unfortunately, we lost touch for a bit because he moved and I went to college; BUT coincidentally enough, he called me the other day!! Apparently he is living back in St. Augustine. Christian is another “buddy” of mine, from my BTHS years. We were not paired-up, but he was in the program. He actually went with me to the Best Buddies bowling event a couple weeks ago.”
With an ever increasing number of people with special needs in the world, Best Buddies and the successful young locals like Cole Slate, who support these programs, are an inspiration that make our communities a better place to live.
If you would like to get involved, there is a chapter of the Best Buddies program at Creekside High School and coming soon there is a possibility that there will be an Ambassador chapter at Bartram Trail. Two fundraisers are held locally each year, in October – Bet on Friendship: Casino Night and in May The Friendship Walk. www.bestbuddiesflorida.org
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