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Best Buddies Canada

Best Buddies Story Spotlight: Naomi Epp

Fifteen years ago, Naomi Epp established a Best Buddies chapter at her high school. Now Naomi works at Community Living in Chatham and is finishing a degree in Disability Studies. She doesn’t think that she would be where she is today without the Best Buddies program. She explains, “Best Buddies helped me find my passion and my mission in life: to help everybody see that we’re not so different from each other.”

Naomi’s journey with Best Buddies began in ninth grade when she noticed that her school’s special education classroom was secluded, tucked away at the back of a hallway far from the mainstream classrooms. She decided to start a Best Buddies chapter to foster a sense of inclusion and community at her school. As Chapter President, Naomi witnessed firsthand the impact the program had on both mainstream and special education students, including herself. “Best Buddies helped me develop leadership skills and work in a team,” she explains. “It helped me learn that we all have different opinions, and each one should be valued and listened to.”

Naomi paired herself up with someone who changed her life. Chantel, a student with Down syndrome, not only became Naomi’s best buddy, but a sister and a friend for life. “She’s my rock,” Naomi says. She knew immediately they were a perfect match. At their first Best Buddies event together – a school dance – Chantel went to the middle of the dance floor and did the entire dance to “Hoedown Throwdown”. Naomi can’t help but laugh. “Everyone stopped what they were doing. I was just in shock, like, ‘Woah, who is this chick?’”

Chantel (left) and Naomi (right)

From that point on, there hasn’t been a year Naomi can look back on that Chantel wasn’t there. They became strong leaders and were recognized for their friendship. Over the years, they spoke at Best Buddies events like the Ascot, went to conferences in Toronto, met celebrity advocates like Goldie Hawn and Best Buddies’ founder Anthony Kennedy Shriver, and represented Canada at the Best Buddies Leadership Conference in Indiana. They did public speaking for the Hamilton school board, helped establish other Best Buddies chapters in the Hamilton area, and received a Leadership Award for their commitment. When asked whether Best Buddies played a part in their leadership and advocacy work, Naomi explains, “We know we can achieve dreams and goals because of Best Buddies. Best Buddies helped us find a voice, communicate with other people, and develop relationships.”

The two have been there for each other through good times and bad, walking through each phase of life as best friends. Chantel graduated from the CICE program at Mohawk College, got married to her husband, Brandon, and moved out to live with him independently. Naomi was there to witness it all; she was even Chantel’s Maid of Honour. “A person like Chantel is one in a million,” Naomi says. “Even though she has Down syndrome, she has so much more to offer. Down syndrome does not define her.”

Chantel’s wedding day

Naomi also graduated from college, receiving a degree from Lambton College. She is engaged and has scheduled her wedding for August. “When I told Chantel I was engaged, she immediately said, ‘Yes, I’ll be your Maid of Honour’. I didn’t even have to ask,” she laughs.

Even though Naomi now lives in Chatham and Chantel lives in Brantford, they still make time to see each other. They video chat at least once a week and get together every so often to drink Iced Capps from Tim Hortons – their favourite – and have sleepovers.

Naomi doesn’t think she could have done this life without Chantel by her side. When they first met, Naomi thought she was just going to help a special education student feel included. “Now I can see that in the last 15 years, she has helped me way more than I have helped her,” Naomi explains. “I thought I would help somebody, not expecting anything in return, even though I’ve received it ten times over.”

Naomi and Chantel’s friendship is simply one of many fostered by Best Buddies Canada’s friendship program. Fifteen years after they first met, their experience with and beyond the program continues to inspire Naomi to work with individuals with IDD and help people to have a more inclusive mindset. “If it wasn’t for Best Buddies, we wouldn’t be where we are today. It helped shape us.”