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Best Buddies Canada

Best Buddies Story Spotlight: Jessica Rotolo and Lauren Abela

Lauren and Jessica Story Spotlight

Jessica Rotolo and Lauren Abela have been involved with Best Buddies for nearly a decade. Their journey with the organization has brought them exciting leadership opportunities and a lifelong friendship, shaping their lives and leaving a lasting impact on their community.

Jessica, a young adult living with Down syndrome, was first introduced to Best Buddies as a student at Heydon Park Secondary School, a small all-girls school in the heart of Toronto. Encouraged by her teacher, Lily Cheng, she joined the program, where she formed strong friendships and discovered a passion for leadership and advocacy.

Lauren’s journey with Best Buddies also began in high school at St. Jean de Brebeuf Catholic High School in Vaughan. Although she initially observed from the sidelines, a classroom visit from Best Buddies participants piqued her interest. She quickly fell in love with the program and became deeply involved in her school’s chapter.

The girls’ paths first crossed in post-secondary at the University of Guelph-Humber (Humber College) when they realized there wasn’t an active Best Buddies chapter at their school. They each independently reached out to Best Buddies Canada to inquire about rebuilding the program as Chapter Presidents. Their first meeting at a campus Starbucks set the tone for a deep and enduring friendship. “We had so much in common from the start,” Jessica recalls. “I met a lot of new friends at Best Buddies in high school, so I was excited to meet a new friend.”

Guelph-Humber’s 2022-2023 Executive Team

Their friendship quickly blossomed. Some of their favourite activities to do together include going to the movies, long walks at the beach, dancing, hosting Instagram Lives, and playing board games. As Chapter Presidents, they hosted group events and outings with their chapter, even going to a Blue Jays game and attending a private screening of the movie “Champions”. Jessica’s creativity shines through in her greeting cards, which she sells at local businesses, and her performances in DramaWay showcases, which Lauren enthusiastically supports. “Jessica is an incredible actress and performer,” Lauren says. “She’s extremely confident and I love that. She even danced in our chapter’s talent show! It’s been fantastic to see her flourish and grow each year.”

Their efforts helped the Guelph-Humber chapter grow and positively impacted the broader school community. For many students, it was their first time engaging with individuals with disabilities. “The Best Buddies chapter on campus sparked that curiosity, created those positive experiences,” Lauren explains. She, too, felt inspired by her experience with the chapter and her friendship with Jessica. “Jessica being present and showing everyone she’s a leader is proving everyone wrong. Jessica’s confidence inspired other people to get involved.”

After graduating, Jessica and Lauren stayed involved with Best Buddies Canada. They took on leadership roles as Best Buddies International Ambassadors, representing Canada through Best Buddies’ global platform. Their responsibilities include attending monthly development seminars with other global ambassadors and participating in local conferences. They even attended the 2023 Best Buddies International Leadership Conference in Indiana and plan to attend the 2024 conference later this month. Lauren believes that working with other global ambassadors has sparked more conversation around accessibility, friendship, and acceptance and inspired other people in the community to be involved.

Lauren and Jessica at the 2023 Best Buddies Leadership Conference

Throughout their friendship and journey with Best Buddies, Jessica and Lauren have supported each other through challenges and celebrated each other’s accomplishments. Lauren helps Jessica further her advocacy work. At the International Leadership conference, when Lauren felt overwhelmed by the large crowds, Jessica was by her side to make sure she was okay. “We look out for each other,” Lauren says. “We’ve really matured because we’ve gone through so many highs and lows together.”

Reflecting on their many years together, Jessica and Lauren find it hard to choose just one favourite memory. “From all the fun we’ve had, memories we’ve made, opportunities to grow as leaders – everything has had a positive impact,” Lauren says. “Best Buddies offers so much to participants who want to get involved. Take that leap of faith because you don’t know until you try.”

Lauren and Jessica at a Blue Jays game with Best Buddies

“Best Buddies helped me become a brave, confident young woman,” Jessica says. “Being co-president at Guelph-Humber helped me help others apply for leadership positions.” Looking ahead, Jessica hopes to continue developing her leadership skills and plans to pursue her goals of living independently and returning to school. Lauren aspires to become a psychotherapist and promote understanding and acceptance for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Being involved in Best Buddies led Jessica and Lauren to discover a true, lifelong friend, a worldwide community, and a passion for advocacy. Jessica hopes that anyone considering participating in Best Buddies takes her advice: “Just be you and don’t be afraid to meet new people.”

Jessica’s Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Greeting Cards

Lauren’s Instagram