The middle school classroom was lively, with history posters decorating the walls and beach-style lounge chairs used in place of some desks as a teacher delivered an interactive lecture.
Emily Dore, a seventh-grade student at Reed Academy, a middle school in north Springfield, was in the back corner of the class. She was nestled in a teal chair while taking notes about ancient Greece on her laptop.
MSU student Josie Pearson, a junior sociology major and a swimming and diving Bear, sat cross-legged on the floor beside her, following along in Dore’s class textbook while glancing over her shoulder to help. Pearson visits Dore at Reed each week as a part of the Buddy Bears program.
The Buddy Bears program is designed to encourage friendships between Reed Academy students and Missouri State student-athletes, creating positive role models for the Reed students. It pairs MSU athletes with special-education or at-risk students. Buddy Bears can read together, do homework or projects, talk about life, eat lunch together or simply sit together in class.
Reed is in Springfield’s northwest quadrant, known as Zone 1. The city of Springfield reports that crime, illness and poverty are more concentrated in this zone.
“The kids will ask all the time — even if their Buddy Bears came in that week — ‘When are they coming back again?’ ‘Have you heard from them?’ They love it, and I get that. Someone is willing to invest in them and pay attention to them,”
— said Rich Dameron, Reed Academy special education teacher and Buddy Bears coordinator.
Dameron, who graduated from MSU in 2016 with a master’s in education, has taught at Reed for five years. He was entrusted with the Buddy Bears program when the original program coordinator moved to another state in 2016.
As the Buddy Bears coordinator, Dameron handles the behind-the-scenes administrative work. He also offers advice to the MSU student-athletes, helping them to develop a better relationship with the Reed students.
“We have a very high free and reduced lunch rate — it’s more than 75 percent — and a lot of our students are coming from single-parent homes,” Dameron said.
“I just don’t think that the athletes realize how huge this is to these kids. They think it’s so awesome — think of a celebrity-like status. That is what it is to them. They come into their classrooms and those kids know that their Buddy Bears are there for them. It’s huge. The more we can get involved, the better. Even if it’s just for one kid, it would be worth it.”
Buddy Bears started in 2014
A former Reed Academy special education staff member started the program. It was originally designed to be a mentorship program between MSU Football Bears and Reed Academy special-education students.
Since then, it has expanded to include at-risk students and is open to all Missouri State athletics teams. In spring semester 2017, about 30 MSU student-athletes from at least seven athletic teams participated in the program.
“We’re able to see more results with the kids and see more kids get better behaviorally. … Their grades are better. We help them with life skills, we help and mentor them toward maybe going to college,”
— Shelby Harris said.
Harris, thinks the program has become even better since expanding.
“We really keep their goals where they should be and help them know that they can do anything that they want to.”
Harris was paired with his buddy Brett Butts, who has autism, for three years — from the time the program began, to the end of Butts’ time at Reed and Harris’ time at MSU.
“We’ve become friends. We’re both leaving at the same time. It’ll be sad for both of us to part ways.”
“I’ve seen some of our students who have just come back from Reed Academy glowing because of something their buddy said,”
— A’dja Jones said.
Jones is the MSU athletics department coordinator for the program.
“It’s been really cool to see the impact that both parties have on each other, because our athletes are learning more about people who are different than them and the importance of community service,” Jones said.
“But they also have a new friend, and it’s an opportunity for them to forget about their sport for a little while and about life as a college student, and just have some fun with a student who really appreciates them.”
Why they love Buddy Bears
“I really think it’s important to give back. I’m very fortunate, and have a lot of things that I think I take for granted. When I leave here, I just feel really happy that I got to make an impact on someone like Emily, and that’s really cool to me.”
– Josie Pearson, sociology major; swimming and diving Bear
“Our relationship is really strong. We really, really appreciate having each other, and if I didn’t have her as a Buddy Bear, I don’t know what I would have done.”
— Emily Dore, seventh grade
“Getting to see the progress in Breanna’s school work and just being around her — it makes me happy to be able to spend my Friday afternoon this way.”
— Quinlan Ward, communication major; cross country and track and field Bear
“I love to just spend time with Quinlan, talking to her because I like talking to other people. I only have a couple of friends but she’s the best one of all.”
— Breanna Johnson, seventh-grade student and aspiring pop star
“I enjoy talking to Monica. She helps me with my stuff at school and my grades.”
— Raven Gilbert, seventh-grade student