Local high schooler works to empower students with disabilities

CARMEL, Ind. - According to the CDC, about 1 in 6 children ages 3-17 will have a developmental or intellectual disability.

For those kids, finding a job or finding a friend can be a challenge.

Thanks to a program called Best Buddies, thousands of people nationwide were able to find both.

Best Buddies works by pairing up participants (peers) with a student in need (buddies). The goal is to help them build meaningful relationships and develop independence.

Each year the program also nominates champions. A champion works to raise funds and awareness about the burdens facing people with disabilities and their families.

Carmel High School is home to the state's largest student run chapter, and one of their peers, Gabi Stigter, is the youngest champion nominated in state history.

Gabi--now a sophomore--joined the program as a sixth grader. That year, she was paired up with Sky Simpson, who was born with Down syndrome. More than 5 years later, the two are inseparable.

"We’ll go for walks, we'll go to the Best Buddy activities, we’ll go eat. Anything you would do with just a normal friend." says Stigter.

Together they've been able to navigate what can often be difficult years.

"In high school, middle school you kind of go through that weird phase in life and you go through a cycle of friends," says Stigter. "But a buddy is there for you no matter what. They never leave, and they accept you for who you are."

She says her goal is to change the way society views and accepts those with disabilities.

"People with a disability and without a disability are equal and it needs to connect in society."

She is not alone in the effort. Across campus, freshman teacher Christine Ellis is a champion herself.

"These kids want to see a change in their community. Not only their school community but the greater Carmel community, the greater Indianapolis community," says Ellis.

Because Best Buddies is student-led, Ellis says her role as a sponsor is minimal, but her involvement with Best Buddies is not.

Ellis joined as a student at Butler. It was there she met her buddy, Kylene.

While she hopes she's made an impact on Kylene, she acknowledges that it's likely the other way around.

"It’s people like Kylene and other buddies that I’ve worked with before that show this genuine love and respect. They’ve taught me what it means to be a true friend."

One of the major focuses of Best Buddies is to help people with intellectual or developmental disabilities find jobs.

Kylene is about to celebrate 19 years working at Kroger. She is a shining example of what the program, and those who join, hope to accomplish.

"Showing work forces they can do it," says Stigter. "Even though they have different abilities than us, they are pretty amazing no matter what."

On Nov. 10, the champion who raises the most funds will be called Indiana champion of the year.

You can go here to donate.