West Aurora High School juniors Jonathan Konduri, left, and Michael Perez walk between exhibits Monday at the Best Buddies Illinois Zoo Bash at Brookfield Zoo. | Submitted photo
BROOKFIELD — Jonathan Konduri and Michael Perez officially became “buddies” when they joined West Aurora High School’s new Best Buddies chapter last fall. The two were assigned to befriend each other at outings for the international club, which brings mainstream students and special education students together to learn about each other’s worlds.
But their friendship soon extended beyond official Best Buddies activities. Perez and Konduri eat lunch together at school, along with several of Perez’s mainstream friends who now also socialize with Konduri. They hang out together on weekends, taking in movies and hockey games or just playing video games.
That’s why Best Buddies of Illinois named the two juniors the “Buddy Pair of Illinois” in a surprise ceremony Monday at Brookfield Zoo. Dozens of Best Buddies chapters throughout the state attended the event, including clubs from Neuqua Valley High School, Sycamore High School and Sycamore Middle School.
“Mike and Jon really just stood out to us,” said Shannon Hautman, Illinois program supervisor. “The thing that makes their friendship more special is that they became friends outside the program, which is our ultimate goal. They’re good role models because they take our mission to heart.”
Megan Maulding, one of the West Aurora High School Best Buddies faculty advisers, said, “Mike has really gone above and beyond the expectations of the club. He doesn’t treat Jonathan like he’s disabled. He just treats him like a friend.
“Mike introduced Jonathan to his other friends, and now they hang out with Jonathan, too,” Maulding continued. “When Jonathan was practicing job skills during lunch, Mike gave up his lunch hour to coach him. We’ve been emailing the state organization about them all year, and we were hoping they would win the Buddy Pair of the Year award.”
Perez shrugged off the praise showered on him after the ceremony. “It’s not a chore. I like being around Jon,” he said. “He’s really fun to be around, and he always keeps me happy because he’s got such a great perspective on life. Even when his mood is down, it doesn’t take much to bring it back up again.”
Konduri agreed. “I like going to Wolves games with Mike. He makes it fun,” he said.
Best Buddies Illinois officials also praised the West Aurora High School chapter’s start-up success. The club boasts 37 members — 17 special education students and 20 mainstream students — while other students participate in club-sponsored events.
“West Aurora is a brand-new chapter, and it’s already become very active. The fact that they’ve grown so quickly is really exciting. Receiving a statewide award their first year is a huge achievement,” Hautman said.
“This club changed my life,” said West Aurora freshman Cody Taylor. “Some kids think we’re nothing, but Best Buddies showed me that some kids don’t think that way.”
Perez will serve as club president next year.
“It’s a great program for kids to get involved in,” he said. “It lets you meet kids you might not get to meet otherwise, and it makes you feel like a good person when you can help some of them go out and have fun.”