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Exeter NH’s first lady urges students to include everyone Lincoln St. School may become Best Buddies program host

Portsmouth Herald - 5/12/2017

EXETER — New Hampshire’s first lady, Valerie Sununu, knows she has a lot of labels: mother, teacher, wife to Gov. Chris Sununu.

“But really I’m just Valerie, Valerie Sununu, that’s who I am and I think you all feel the same way,” Sununu told a group of third-graders at Lincoln Street School on Tuesday morning.

Others may be given labels like Down syndrome or cerebral palsy, she said, as she talked with the students about the Best Buddies program, for which she is the state ambassador. The Best Buddies program promotes one-on-one friendships between able bodied students and those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“Best Buddies is when you go out of your way to include people who have labels or have been left out,” she told the students. “You’re trying to include the people who don’t feel included.”

Lincoln Street School could be the first elementary school in the state to host a chapter of the program, which is already in place at Exeter High School and the University of New Hampshire. Details are not yet finalized but if it moves forward, a program could begin in the fall.

“It’s flattering for sure and I think we could do them proud,” LSS Principal Drew Bairstow said of the school being tapped for the program. “A lot of the program encapsulates what kids at this elementary school are already doing.”

Sununu, who was an elementary special education teacher, initially planned to read the students a book called My Friend Isabelle but told the students that her own children gave her some suggestions to make it interesting for them. Instead, she read "The Sneetches," by Dr. Seuss, about two types of creatures, separated by having or not having stars on their bellies. The Star Belly Sneetches think they are the best, and look down upon Sneetches without stars.

Students spoke about what they thought the message of the book was at the end. “We’re all equal,” one boy said. Another said, “No one here is the best.”

Sununu introduced the third-graders to Exeter High School students, Darci Joyce and Kalie Nassoura. Kalie became a buddy to Darci two years ago.

“I think Darci is one of my most loyal, loving, fun friends that I have,” Kalie said. “A lot of people think I’m helping Darci but that’s not the case.”

Sununu told the students that when she first met Darci and Kalie, she learned that Kalie was taking her buddy to the prom this month.

“That’s the kind of thing buddies can do with each other,” Sununu said.

Students had many questions about the program and how pairs were matched up. One little girl wanted to know if she had to take a personality test to be a buddy.

“Even Tom Brady has a Best Buddy, did you know that?” Sununu asked the students.

“Gronk,” one student called out.

“No, not Gronk,” Sununu said, explaining that Brady is matched up with someone with a disability through the program.

They also had questions for Sununu such as whether she’d ever been in the White House to whether she was nervous when her husband was campaigning for governor.

“I was so nervous, but I was also really proud,” she told them.

Sarra Dennehy, the statewide director for Best Buddies, told the students that she planned to speak with Bairstow about the potential to start a program in their school.

“Hopefully it will happen for this school and you would be our first elementary school,” Dennehy said.

Darci and fellow EHS student Nikki Despelteau both attended Lincoln Street School and were excited to return to their old school to promote the Best Buddies program. They caught up with some of their former teachers like special education teacher Carolyn Kemp and fourth-grade teacher Katie Pupino.

“It’s wonderful,” Kemp said of seeing the two girls, adding she’s kept in touch with them since they left LSS. “I’ve been able to watch them grow up.”

Nassoura said she loved seeing the reactions to the program from the third graders.

“It’s super exciting to watch how excited they were,” Nassoura said. “And shows a promising future as they move up through the schools and shows how inclusion will look.”

Sununu challenged the students to expand their brain and think about someone who might need a little extra friendship. “Who is that person who needs the extra kindness?” she said. “That’s the buddy you’re going to make in this program.”

 
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