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  • By Stacy Gittleman

Izabel Kruse and Ella Easterwood

As she weeded the landscaping outside the Angels' Place Pine Center adult group home in West Bloomfield this spring, Notre Dame Preparatory High School senior Ella Easterwood of Rochester knew she had made a friend. Through the window, a resident had picked up her clarinet and started playing the school’s fight song as a show of appreciation. “Volunteering for people with learning disabilities just fits in with our school’s community-oriented values,” said Easterwood, 17. “The woman playing our fight song used to visit our school for games and plays in the past. I am glad we can keep up our connection with residents like this even during the pandemic. This is not just a service opportunity. Our student volunteers and the people who live here have formed deep friendships.” Believing that their high school student body needed a better understanding and more exposure to those with developmental learning disabilities, Easterwood and her classmate Izabel Kruse, 17, of Bloomfield Hills, established a Best Buddies chapter to volunteer with Angels' Place. Best Buddies is an international organization that provides services and friendships for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Since 1992, Southfield-based Angels’ Place provides homes and services to approximately 150 people living with developmental disabilities in 20 locations in Wayne, Macomb, and Oakland counties. The girls did not let the pandemic deter their desire for making a connection between the school and adult home communities. Starting last spring, their Best Buddies chapter worked on the outside of several Angels' Place homes, where volunteers spruced up the landscaping and helped plant a vegetable garden. Though students could not directly socialize with residents, they set up times to get to know each other and play games like BINGO over Zoom. What the students learned is that they share common interests with residents like playing games, music, and playing sports, said Kruse. Among the resident population are musicians, cooks, and even Special Olympics medalists. “Students in our school need to be better educated about adults and children with intellectual disabilities,” said Kruse, who took example from her big sister Maura, 19, who volunteers with special needs children. “Although the pandemic essentially canceled everything, it did not cancel the love that was shared through charity.” Easterwood and Kruse are now in the thick of applying to college, but they both hope to continue volunteering with those with disabilities with Best Buddy chapters when they go to university. Through the winter, they will work with their high school Best Buddy membership to set up more programming with Angels' Place residents over Zoom including playing games and arranging cooking classes. “Through Best Buddies, I learned that people may learn and interact differently from one another,” said Kruse. “But in the end, we should be able to look beyond a person’s disability and see they are humans with interests, hobbies, and lives just like us.” Photo: Laurie Tennent

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