At North Hunterdon High School in Annandale, Clinton Township, each student who joins the Interact Club pledges the following oath: “I believe that everyone achieves more. Therefore, I will sacrifice to give. I will help others to achieve. I will be a friend to all. And I will believe that everyone is created equal.”

Interact Club members truly are friends to all, which is most evident during the club’s annual event, Friendship Day.

For more than 20 years, on the half-day before Thanksgiving, North Hunterdon students have taken part in the event that unites special education students, and students from general education classes, with the simple goal of making friends.

“As Thanksgiving approaches every year at North Hunterdon, excitement builds, not only because it is the beginning of the holiday season, but because Friendship Day is near,” said Christopher Schumann, supervisor of special education at North Hunterdon High School. “On the half day before Thanksgiving, our school community celebrates Friendship Day and with it the joy of newly-established friendships. It is a special day at North that has been woven into our school’s culture over the past 20 years.”

Friendship Day was created in 1994 by special education teacher and Interact Club advisor Marybeth Berry, who noticed that students who have a disability were not much involved in school activities and were not enjoying friendships with other members of the student body. Friendship Day was born as a solution to the simple fact that friendships do not just happen, they have to be cultivated.

“Friendship Day is a total inclusive program…one that is team-led and team-driven, by the students and not teachers. The day’s activities attribute to the high school’s climate of inclusiveness. I would love to see the program started in other districts,” said Berry.

Friendship Day provides an opportunity every year for members of the North Hunterdon High School student body, both general education students and students who have a disability, to come together to develop meaningful relationships through team building and trust activities. The Interact Club recruits volunteers, to serve either as a team leader or participant.

Interact Club faculty advisors train the team leaders, stressing the importance for all team members to be involved and for the leader to be a peer to everyone. The Club creates teams that are heterogeneously grouped so males, females, general education and special education students, and all grade levels are sorted equally. Each team is assigned a color and matching colored t-shirt.

Team leaders arrive at school at 5 a.m. on Friendship Day to decorate a specific area, all matching the team’s assigned color. Once participants arrive, the day begins with each team creating a team cheer, and then proceeding through nine different activities designed to encourage trust and team building among members. This year’s activities included giant web; photo booth; Pictionary; circle of chairs; nitro river crossing; group maze pattern; porthole; pipeline; and shipwrecked. There is also a rest period to allow teams some time to talk to each other and share stories. Each team is at each activity for about 20 minutes (this is for a half day program, but can be expanded to a full day).

“I like playing games and being with my new friends. I really like tossing the big ball around. The best part was walking around with my friends,” said twelfth-grader Luke Rigatti, who attended Friendship Day in November 2015.

Twelfth-grader Katie Higgins said her favorite part of Friendship Day is “the circle of chairs and being passed through the porthole. I also like the spider web and kick ball. I was on the purple team this year. I like making new friends every year.”

Since 1994, Friendship Day has stayed largely the same, concentrating on creating heterogeneous teams and team-building activities. The program originally ran a full day, leading into the school’s annual fall pep rally. It is now held on the half-day before Thanksgiving recess, with graduates returning to help out. Popularity has skyrocketed with the number of participants growing to 280 participants, with 35 students on each team, in 2015. The program is so popular that students have to be turned away.

“Friendship Day is a chance to come together with people you wouldn’t normally have a chance to meet. I look forward to it every year and have genuinely made new friends from this event. It’s about working together in teams, participating in activities that make you depend on the help of others, and bond with each individual. It has taught me to keep an open mind about people you meet because in the end you may soon call them your friend,” said Kat Wilson, a junior and past team leader.

The program has become a stepping stone for students to volunteer for other events, such as Special Olympics and Turkey Trot. During Friendship Day, teachers present volunteer opportunities to the teams to encourage students to get involved in community service.

“Friendship Day is about planting seeds – to create better leaders, increase inclusion for all students, and for students to branch out and meet new people,” said Berry. “The team-building activities lead to other things students will encounter in life, such as overcoming obstacles.”

The cost of running Friendship Day is minimal. The first year there was an increased cost to obtain the materials and equipment needed for each activity. Annually, each student who participates pays approximately $15, which covers the costs of t-shirts and food. The Interact Club fundraises throughout the year so they can cover the costs related to the activities and decorations.

The special education departments of the North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School District have continued to make strides in creating opportunities to ensure all students are able to participate in high school activities to the best of their personal ability. At North Hunterdon High School, Friendship Day is a cornerstone in that mission. The program can open doors and give students who have a disability the jumpstart they need to try new things and make new connections. The hope is that students will gain confidence to participate in other school activities throughout the school year, perhaps with a new friend by their side.

“You get such a great feeling when you see students saying hello to each other in the hallway, knowing that they may have never connected with each other if it were not for Friendship Day,” said Dina Marron, special education teacher and current co-advisor of Interact Club.

If you are interested in starting Friendship Day in your school district, please contact Christopher Schumann, supervisor of special education, at [email protected] or call (908) 713-4199 ext. 6430.

Maren Smagala is the district communications coordinator in the North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School District.