“When I bring my buddy around, everyone can see how happy the two of us are together,” Sarah Smith says. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Before I got to middle school I didn’t really know anything about special needs. I’d been to a private school for my whole life; I’ve never been in a school environment with anyone with special needs. So when I came to middle school, I didn’t have any set thoughts toward them. I didn’t have any prejudices or judgments. Honestly, anything they did, I just accepted that.

They’re different than what we’re used to [but] they’re still people; they’re still the same. Like at my high school, they still want to do the same things that everyone else wants to. It’s hard enough to go to high school, in general, for people my age. But it’s even harder when you’re so anxious about where you’re gonna sit at lunch. Who are you gonna talk to in the hallway? Who are you gonna talk to in the morning? So the organization really just helps them meet people throughout the school and helps kind of spark these friendships that get them through high school happily. ’Cause it’s just such a stressful environment to be in, especially if you don’t know who your friends are.

I don’t have any issues with any of my friends being rude to any of the buddies. And all my friends have pretty much stopped saying the “R-word” because Best Buddies campaigns for “Spread the Word to End the Word” — the usage of the word “retarded.” They’re actually really respectful. For the most part, people don’t really reach out, but if [the buddies] start a conversation with them they won’t be mean to them. I think that’s the biggest problem: People get nervous. They’re not exactly sure what to do.

The first time I met [my buddy] was in my PE class. He was just running around, and everyone was kind of staring at him. I was just like, You know what? I’m gonna run around with him and try to get him to talk to me. We just ran around; we didn’t talk. We ran around all year, and then he finally talked to me at the end of the year. It was like the biggest highlight of my life — the fact that we were finally talking about haircuts and dogs, and probably grilled cheese, too. Those are, like, his three favorite things.

When I bring my buddy around, everyone can see how happy the two of us are together. Like the time he brought his Buddha sculpture with him to school and talked to me about Buddha. I didn’t even know he knew who Buddha was. And it turns out he’s amazing at Wii bowling. He gets strikes every time. All these memories that I create with him end up being my new favorite memories because he’s just such an inspirational figure for my life.