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Atholton High friends recognized as 'Best Buddies'

Glenn Donovan and Leandro Conti, seniors at Atholton High, have been named this year's Best Buddies Maryland Honorary Best Buddy Pair and will be recognized at the organization's Friendship Walk this Saturday, May 7.
Glenn Donovan and Leandro Conti, seniors at Atholton High, have been named this year's Best Buddies Maryland Honorary Best Buddy Pair and will be recognized at the organization's Friendship Walk this Saturday, May 7. (Submitted photo)

In many ways, Glenn Donovan and Leandro Conti's friendship is unremarkable.

The two Atholton High School seniors met playing kickball during recess in the fifth grade. They play pingpong and video games together, and watch each other's sports games. Their families hang out together, too.

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Their common interests, especially their shared love of sports, seem to overshadow a key difference between them: Donovan has Down syndrome and Conti doesn't.

Since freshman year, the two friends have been members of Atholton High's Best Buddies chapter, which pairs students who have intellectual and developmental disabilities with typically developing students. The goal is to help disabled individuals learn how to interact with their non-disabled peers, and to help them feel included in their school community.

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Leandro Conti and Glenn Donovan, seniors at Atholton High, laugh with Donovan's father and Conti's mother during a dinner gathering at the Conti's house. Conti and Donovan have been named the Best Buddies Maryland Honorary Buddy Pair and will be recognized at the organization's Friendship Walk on Saturday, May 7.
Leandro Conti and Glenn Donovan, seniors at Atholton High, laugh with Donovan's father and Conti's mother during a dinner gathering at the Conti's house. Conti and Donovan have been named the Best Buddies Maryland Honorary Buddy Pair and will be recognized at the organization's Friendship Walk on Saturday, May 7. (Staff photo by Lisa Philip)

Conti and Donovan, both 19, requested to be paired together and have been buddies ever since. They tease each other like brothers and enjoy a healthy level of competition.

"Glenn's always coming to Leandro's games and asking the coach how he did," said Conti's mother, Poliana.

Donovan, who plays Allied Sports, once scored four goals over the course of one soccer game and then asked Conti's varsity soccer coach how many goals Conti had scored in the season.

Howard County's Allied Sports Program is open to high school students with disabilities as well as students without disabilities who have never played on a junior varsity or varsity team.

"And I scored two goals this season," Conti said. "So then Glenn tells my coach, 'I got more goals than him ... in one game.'"

Their friendship is the kind that Best Buddies International strives for, said Maryland director Vince Fiduccia.

"They're friends for life," he said. "They'll be at each other's weddings. They've become almost like brothers."

Best Buddies was founded in 1989 to end the isolation of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Students in the Best Buddies friendship program, which operates at nine high schools and two middle schools in Howard County, are required to meet face-to-face at least twice a month and communicate weekly via phone, Facebook, email or other means.

Donovan and Conti have gone beyond that.

When Conti was recentlyin the hospital for knee surgery and couldn't play in one of his school's soccer games, Donovan started a video call with him from the field so that Conti could see what was going on.

"I kept telling him to move the phone so that I could see the rest of the field," Conti said. "All I could see was the end line."

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The two friends auditioned and were chosen to deliver the closing remarks at their school's commencement ceremony next month. They have also been named the 2016 Maryland Honorary Best Buddies Pair and will be recognized at the organization's annual Friendship Walk on Saturday, May 7.

"We felt like they signified what our mission was about," Fiduccia said, "about two people becoming friends — one with a disability, one without — and it's the common interests that they have that bind them together."

Just a few decades ago, Conti and Donovan probably wouldn't have been in the same school, and might have missed the opportunity to become friends; for most of the 20th century, children with disabilities were segregated in specialized facilities, or denied an education entirely.

Vince Fidducia, director of Best Buddies Maryland, recently ran into Atholton High seniors Glenn Donovan and Leandro Conti at a Towson University basketball game. The two students have been a pair through the Best Buddies chapter at their school since freshman year.
Vince Fidducia, director of Best Buddies Maryland, recently ran into Atholton High seniors Glenn Donovan and Leandro Conti at a Towson University basketball game. The two students have been a pair through the Best Buddies chapter at their school since freshman year. (Submitted photo)

This began to change after 1975, after Congress passed Public Law 94-142, which has since been amended and is currently known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. The legislation provides for students with disabilities between the age of 3 and 21 to be educated with their non-disabled peers to the greatest extent, without sacrificing the integrity of their education.

But challenges remain to this day for disabled students in general education schools, according to Fiduccia.

"They are apt to face taunting or bullying or non-acceptance," he said. "Or just being ignored — sometimes that's the most brutal."

Donovan's father, David, said his son's friendship with Conti has helped weave him into the fabric of the community at Atholton High.

"Leo's very social," he said. "Through extension, Glenn met a lot of people he wouldn't have otherwise met."

As a junior, Conti recruited Donovan to be his soccer team's manager.

The coach was all for Donovan being manager, David Donovan said, but he was concerned at first about whether or not the other players would accept and include him.

"But I think these guys have built up a pretty good friendship over the years, so the other guys seeing Leandro treating Glenn like everyone else made it obvious to them to just treat Glenn like everyone else," said Donovan.

Not only did he become an integral part of the team, said Conti's mom, the coach said that her son was the best manager he had in his 18 years of coaching.

At one game, Conti said, someone had forgotten to turn the clock on, and Donovan saved the day.

"Nobody asked Glenn to do anything, but all of the sudden the clock is on, and then the coach looks up," she said. "That's Glenn up there pressing the buttons, being proactive."

Fiduccia said that the friendships encouraged by Best Buddies, in addition to helping disabled students feel included, prepare them for life after school and in the workplace.

This fall Donovan will stay in the Howard County school system and participate in its work study program.

"If you don't have those social skills, how are you going to apply to go get a job, how are you going to work with coworkers?" Fiduccia said. "These are things that we take for granted."

The program has also left its mark on Conti, who is planning on studying business administration at Indiana University so that he can work for Best Buddies International one day.

"I told Glenn I'd get him a T-shirt," Conti said. "What is it going to say, Glenn?"

"Hoosier?" Donovan asked.

"Hoosier daddy!" Conti replied.

The Best Buddies Maryland Friendship Walk will be held Saturday, May 7 at 9 a.m. at the University of Maryland Xfinity Center. For more information, go to https://bestbuddiesfriendshipwalk.org/maryland/.

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