TAMPA – Plant High School students Jordan Hurst and Kelsey Hill worked together to put some canned yams and a mix for corn bread muffins into a laundry basket.
“We're filling up our basket with all kinds of stuff,” said Hurst, 19, as he carefully selected a pie.
By the time they had walked all the way around the dining room table, their basket was overflowing with all of the ingredients - including a turkey - needed to make a traditional Thanksgiving meal.
Hurst, a special needs student, and Hill were part of a group of 10 Plant students in two school groups who are providing Thanksgiving dinner for families in need.
They assembled 10 gift baskets worth about $50 each on Tuesday evening. Some will be delivered to the River of Grace homeless shelter today and others will go to families of Plant students who cannot afford to go all-out with their holiday meal.
Students in both groups, which aim to allow kids with special needs to participate fully in the high-school experience, raised money to purchase the food as well as household items such as laundry detergent and paper towels.
The Best Buddies program pairs special-needs students with their nondisabled peers, who serve as instant friends. The buddies eat lunch together in the cafeteria, chat on the phone and get together on the weekends. There are about 35 special-needs students in the program and about 65 volunteer buddies.
Special-needs students in the Paw PrINts program – with the “IN” signifying inclusion – get the opportunity to cheer on the sidelines at football and basketball games with the varsity cheerleading squad.
This is the fifth year for Best Buddies to donate Thanksgiving meals to local families, but it is the first time for the group to collaborate with the cheerleaders.
Hill, a 16-year-old junior who is involved in both groups, said preparing meals for families who need help is a good exercise for Jordan and the other special-needs students.
“It's good leadership to show the kids what's right and do it with them,” she said. “Jordan is really outgoing and he reaches out to people. It's so welcoming.”
Meanwhile, sophomore Lesley Lattner, 15, helped her buddy, senior Daniel Justiniano, 17, add a can of green beans and a roll of paper towels to a basket before topping it off with a turkey.
The students left Lattner's South Tampa house, where they put the baskets together, and climbed into an SUV with Justiniano's mom to drop off the first one.
After a five-minute ride, Justiniano proudly presents a mother with the Thanksgiving meal she will now be able to feed her family.
“He was really excited,” said his mom, Omayra Gonzalez. “He loves to join in anything that's helping.”