Mokena Junior High School eighth-grade student Lexie Bailey may have Down syndrome and serve as a runner on the track team, and eighth-grade student Maggie Tinman may not, but they share something powerful in common.
The two are members of a student group dubbed the Meteor Buddies.
Together, they make up two of 20 students belonging to a group whose initiative is to promote inclusivity and friendship between students with special needs and those in the general education program at Mokena Junior High School.
“It’s really fun,” Tinman said of the student club. “I go on Wednesdays. We always just like listen to music, and Lexie’s favorite is country music.”
Tinman said she’s witnessed a change in Lexie after spending time with her each week throughout the school year.
“She’s really excited for high school, I think,” Tinman said.
Bob and Ellen Bailey, of Mokena, said they are pleased by the efforts of the Meteor Buddies to make their daughter feel more included at school.
“She does more [outside of school,]” Bob said. “She gets to get out more.”
Ellen shared Bob’s sentiment.
“She likes to interact and she does a lot with Lincoln-Way Special [Recreation Association,] so for her to be involved with the school, not just with the academic section but just like the sports or just everything, makes her just a [more well-rounded] child,” she said.
Bailey had not served as a member of the school’s track team prior to this school year. Previously, she had participated in the Lincoln Way Special Recreation Association’s track program.
Tinman said she attended one of the track meets Bailey participated in during the school year and enjoyed cheering her on.
“I was so excited,” Tinman said. “I didn’t run with her, but she was so excited to be part of the team.”
The Meteor Buddies, which was formed three years ago, is the brainchild of Mokena Junior High School teacher Tracey Lesh. She said she had received input from parents inquiring of ways to help build inclusivity among students at school.
That’s when the idea of the group started to snowball.
“The Meteor Buddies comes from this program called the Meteor Club, and that’s where kids can join this club,” Lesh said, noting that individuals complete service-related projects for a host of organizations in the community. “Kids from there volunteer then to be Meteor Buddies.”
The goal, Lesh said, is to increase interactions between students with special needs and those of the general population.
“For my kids, it really helps build their confidence a lot,” Lesh said.
The group provides a number of benefits to those in the general student population who participate, as well.
“It increases their appreciation of acceptance,” Lesh said. “To me, accepting their individual differences just even within their population [is important] in that and giving respect and preparing them for the way our society hopefully, is going with an inclusive society.”
Ellen said it’s not only the students whose efforts are much appreciated, but it’s also the many teachers at Mokena Junior High School.
“The gym coaches take such a special interest in the kids, and they make they’re included especially the gym coach for track,” she said. “He made sure that [Bailey] was in every track meet.”
Ellen said her only concern at first was who will watch over their daughter at the track meets.
That’s no longer a fear for Ellen, though.
Ellen noted that during a track meet held on a cold day, her daughter wasn’t wearing the sweatshirt she had forgotten was packed away in her bag and said one of her teammates gave her a sweatshirt to stay warm.
“It’s just… very heartwarming,” she said of the gesture.