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Best Buddies Canada

Best Buddies Story Spotlight: Brenda Hopper

Brenda Hopper

Brenda Hopper, a dedicated small class special education teacher with the Durham District School Board, has been an integral part of the Best Buddies program for nearly three decades. Throughout her extensive teaching career, Brenda has enriched the lives of countless students and introduced the program to numerous schools.

She first became involved with Best Buddies at North Toronto Collegiate while looking for ways to bridge the gap between her special education students and their mainstream peers. She was one of the first teachers in Canada to establish a Best Buddies high school chapter. Even as she transitioned between schools over the years, she ensured each chapter thrived by passing on her role as Staff Advisor to new teachers.

While running a chapter at Riverdale Collegiate Institute, Brenda encouraged her students to engage with the community. They attended activities sponsored by Best Buddies Canada including Toronto Football Club games and Raptors games and went to dances at the downtown YMCA which Brenda recalls as “amazing opportunities” for fostering friendships and creating memorable experiences.

Brenda’s current school, Pine Ridge Secondary School in Pickering, has become one of Best Buddies’ most successful chapters. She initiated the program as soon as she arrived and it’s since flourished under her guidance. The school’s special education department has expanded, and the chapter has grown with additional support staff and a student leadership team taking on responsibilities. Together, they organize events like movie days, bake sales, and field trips to the Royal Ontario Museum. Her goal is to see friendships flourish outside of school hours. She encourages mainstream students to connect with their buddies’ families and spend time together beyond school walls, fostering deeper bonds and lasting friendships.

Even during the challenges of Covid, Brenda was dedicated to running Best Buddies at Pine Ridge. Because kids in the special education department can be at a medically higher risk, their classes took much longer than mainstream classes to return to an in-person format. “The one to one, face to face contact is what makes Best Buddies,” Brenda explains. “It’s just not the same online.” Despite this setback, she worked hard to see the chapter return to where it was pre-Covid. The students do activities together during lunches and the chapter even hosted a pizza party lunch. Her perseverance ensured that the sense of community in the chapter remained strong. Most students, even if they aren’t officially a member, are familiar with the chapter and supportive of its fundraisers.

Teachers often approach Brenda throughout the school year to introduce students who may be interested in or benefit from the program. She opens the chapter to any student who wants to join and connect with other students. The program benefits special education and mainstream students alike.

One student, Elijah, spoke at Pine Ridge’s Grade 8 parent night about how much he’s gotten out of the program and how much more compassion he feels he has for others because of it. “I think it gives [the students] a deep appreciation for what they have, and awareness for the struggles other people have to overcome,” Brenda explains. “They realize, ‘People don’t have to necessarily be like me to be a real, true friend. You can enjoy each other’s uniqueness.’”

Elijah and Brenda at Grade 8 parent night

Elijah has attended Best Buddies on a weekly basis for two years. Brenda observed a friendship develop between him and one of her special education students, who was so shy that for the first few months of school, she rarely heard him speak. “When Elijah came in and connected with him, all of a sudden, he’s having a full-on conversation! This is a kid who we thought was almost totally nonverbal until he started talking with his best buddy,” she says. “To see a kid go from almost nonverbal to non-stop verbal in the span of a day is amazing! And it’s all because of his buddy.”

After many years as a teacher and staff advisor, Brenda is looking forward to retiring next year. Even though she will no longer be running the chapter, her impact will still be felt. Former students continue to reach out to her who have maintained friendships forged through Best Buddies long after graduation. As she passes on the torch to a new staff advisor at Pine Ridge, Brenda emphasizes the importance of Best Buddies in fostering empathy and social skills among students: “It’s worth the investment to start up a chapter. The way [the students] care for each other and stay connected down the road makes it all worthwhile.”

Brenda’s Best Buddies Canada Volunteer Award

Brenda Hopper’s journey with Best Buddies exemplifies the program’s impact on fostering friendships, nurturing compassion, and creating inclusive communities. She shares, “It’s helped me be a more compassionate teacher and leader. It’s impactful and I think it’s made a difference in a lot of kids’ lives – the club, the program, the experience – but I also got a lot out of it as well.” Best Buddies Canada deeply appreciates Brenda’s significant contribution to the program. In recognition of her dedication to fostering friendship and inclusion, she was honoured with Best Buddies Canada’s 2023-2024 Volunteer Award. Her story serves as a source of inspiration for all who aim to make a positive difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities.