A school club turned Gracie Thompson and Graicyn Lee from strangers to best friends. Thompson is president of the Best Buddies chapter at Mary Persons High School, and Lee is the club's buddy director and a special needs student. They've spent a lot of time together since becoming a "buddy pair" last year, and they'll graduate side by side in May, Thompson said.
An upcoming concert will help forge more friendships like these and build community advocates. Macon's Maggie Renfroe will perform at the Monroe County Fine Arts Center on Jan. 26, and proceeds will benefit Best Buddies at Mary Persons.
The show has been completely planned and organized by the school's club, which creates relationships between students with intellectual and developmental disabilities and the rest of the student body. The club has more than 100 members, and the dozen members with disabilities are matched in "buddy pairs" with other students, said Elizabeth Holloway, Mary Persons' special education teacher and faculty adviser for the club.
Best Buddies is an international nonprofit organization that's been around for more than 50 years, and Holloway created Mary Person's chapter in fall 2013. The school club plans monthly social activities and meetings. Buddy pairs commit to communicate once a week and do two activities together each month, although most hang out more often.
"I think we have an awesome student body," Holloway said. "Even before Best Buddies, they were very accepting and loving and kind. Best Buddies simply gives the opportunity for people who might not otherwise interact to get to hang out and get to know each other. I think it's provided a lot more opportunities for our students with disabilities to enjoy their high school experience."
Thompson and Lee attended almost every Mary Persons football game this year, went to the prom together last year, go out to dinner and the movies frequently, and spend time together at school, Thompson said.
"We're best friends. As soon as we met each other, we instantly clicked. We have a lot in common," Thompson said. "When I signed up for Best Buddies, my goal was to help someone else, but really (Lee) has taught me more than I could ever imagine."
Most of the club's activities are free for students, and the concert will fund future events like the annual Respect Rally at Mary Persons in March, Holloway said.
Thompson, Lee and Holloway got the idea for the fundraiser while attending the national Best Buddies conference in Indiana this summer. Thompson said she had seen Renfroe perform before and knew she was a big advocate for people with special needs.
Renfroe, who is in Nashville pursuing a music career and studying music business at Belmont University, said she feels a "really close connection" to Best Buddies since her cousin is autistic. One of the first shows Renfroe ever played was the Karats and Keepsakes' Cocktails and Cupcakes event, which benefits Central Georgia Autism Ltd., and she has done some events with special needs students at Woodfield Academy in Macon. She plans to get involved with her college's Best Buddies chapter.
"It's so cool to see Down Syndrome kids and kids with special needs and how music impacts them. Most of all, special needs kids just love music," she said. "I am honored that they asked me, and I am hoping that we have a great turnout to support the Best Buddies."
Renfroe said she will play contemporary, upbeat music as well as some new originals during the Jan. 26 concert. She released an extended play record about a year ago and hopes to have another one soon. She'll be accompanied by Josh Carson on guitar and vocals and Steve Moretti on an acoustic drum set. Holloway said Best Buddies members with disabilities will be invited to sing a song on stage with Renfroe.
Best Buddies' long-term goals are to empower students, build advocates and create opportunities for students with disabilities to be engaged in the community after high school, Holloway said. Club members have spoken up for their buddies and helped changed people's outdated mindsets.
The concert will introduce the public to Best Buddies and show them how they can help Monroe County become a more inclusive community, she said.
The Maggie Renfroe concert is at 7 p.m. Jan. 26 at the Monroe County Fine Arts Center in Forsyth. Tickets are $15 for general admission and $10 for students, and they can be purchased at monroefinearts.org.
Refroe also will perform at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27 at the Library Ballroom in Macon. Tickets are $20 and available at www.libraryballroom.com.