The Crossgates Mall food court shook early Sunday morning as dancers stomped and clapped to the Cha Cha Slide.
They were of varied ages and from different places, but they laughed like friends as they kicked up their heels with enthusiasm.
The impromptu dance party was just one way that the Best Buddies Friendship Walk generated happiness and excitement for its 400-plus participants
Team members smiled, hugged and cheered as they joined for a scavenger hunt and short walk.
The event, which organizers hoped would generate $30,000, raised funds for Best Buddies, an organization that helps students with intellectual and developmental disabilities form friendships at their schools. Each participant is matched with a peer without a disability, and they do fun things together.
“We encourage them to be in communication with each other, to go out in the community, do anything that you would do with a friend,” said Nicole Burch, area director for Best Buddies. “At the middle school and high school level, we really focus on that in-school interaction that’s so important — having somebody to eat lunch with, having somebody that says hi to you when you’re at your locker.”
Christina Klejsmyt of Glenville watched proudly as her buddy of seven years, Brianne Nobis of Guilderland, addressed the crowd.
“The reason I joined Best Buddies was to make new friends and interact,” Nobis said in her speech.
The young woman, who has Down syndrome, was dressed in a bright blue Best Buddies T-shirt and a backward painter’s cap that had “Breezy Brie” written on it in blue marker. She confidently spoke about Best Buddies and the friends she’s made because of it.
“It’s been my dream,” she said.
Klejsmyt, who got involved with the organization while a student at Siena College, said she has found a lasting friend in Nobis.
“I feel like she’s just taught me so much. She’s such a strong person and she’s so independent and bright,” she said.
A team of 25 kids from Ballston Spa Middle School stood out in the happy crowd in their neon-pink shirts made for the occasion. A quote from Dr. Seuss was emblazoned on the back: “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”
The team raced through the lower level of the mall, following clues that led them to storefronts where words about friendship were posted. They found the word “Inclusion” on the window in front of Sunglass Hut and “Believe” outside of Pandora. After locating each one, they worked to fit it into a crossword puzzle.
Participation in the Best Buddies program results in good friendships and a feeling of belonging for all who are involved, said Christine Jones, a social worker at Ballston Spa Middle School who helped organize the school’s group.
“It’s like my favorite part of my job; it really is, because this is what kids need, I think. It’s just great,” she said.
Ballston Spa team member Olivia Laime, a seventh-grader, had kind words for her buddy, Cassidy Hale, who was unable to be at the event.
“She teaches me a lot of things and I get to help her, and I think she is amazing, and whenever she smiles it makes me want to laugh because she’s so fun to be around, and awesome,” she said.
Amy Loya, a junior at Union College, has been involved with Best Buddies since she was a freshman and said she has gained much from the experience.
“It’s not just volunteering your time. You actually have an established one-to-one friendship and you take out of it as much as you give. You have a friend, and it’s about having fun and just spending time with them in everything that you do, whether it’s a phone call or taking them out to lunch or to events like this to support the cause on a larger scale,” she explained.
A group of 35 made up of students from Buffalo State College and their buddies made the long trek to Crossgates for Sunday’s event and raised over $5,000 to support it.
Dressed in orange plastic capes and matching T-shirts, they cheered and sang, acting like they had won an Olympic medal. Although the group didn’t have gold medals around their necks — only leis and colorful go-go beads — they were in possession of something else highly prized: good friends.
“You come across so many people in this world who will say bad things about you, so if you find somebody that you’re able to be yourself around, then you’ve got it,” said Buffalo State student Kelly Farrell, 21. “Our shirts say, ‘Friendship starts with me’ on the back and that’s really true, because it just takes one person to be a friend.”