Sydnee Lisa, Bryce Cox and Macy Oteri make Rice Krispies treats as part of a monthly group gathering of ‘Best Buddies’ at Ocean City High School on Monday. When Ocean City High School Special Education teacher Lisa O’Neill and rising senior Macy Oteri attended the “Best Buddies” leadership conference last summer in Bloomington, Ind., they didn’t know what to expect.Dedicated to fostering friendships between intellectually and developmentally disabled (IDD) students and their general education peers, the non-profit program had a strong international presence but — to that point — no local chapter in southern New Jersey.Almost immediately, however, O’Neill knew that that would change.“I spent most of those four days in tears,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘How did I not know about this? How did we not know about this?’ It was awe-inspiring.”Within a matter of weeks the duo had officially unveiled Best Buddies at OCHS, and the response exceeded their expectations.“I’m so proud of how quickly our school took to this club,” O’Neill says. “The support from the student body, the goodness of these young men and women … it’s been wonderful.”Kira Kelly and Justin Trowbridge work together during a monthly group gathering of ‘Best Buddies’ at Ocean City High School on Monday.Currently 41 members strong, the club has 15 official buddy pairs and 11 “associate buddies” who fill in as peer buddies when needed. To remain in the program, a peer buddy must meet twice monthly with their IDD buddy — once in a group setting and once on their own — while maintaining weekly contact, either in-person or over the phone. The meetings and get togethers are then chronicled in a “friendship update,” which is sent to Best Buddies headquarters.By all accounts, membership is mutually beneficial.Peer buddies “have the opportunity to get to know someone they may not have had the chance to cross paths with until joining the club,” Oteri explains, while IDD buddies broaden their support network at what is often an otherwise vulnerable time. “High school can be tough, and knowing that a fellow student is there for you can mean the world,” she adds.According to O’Neill, no gesture is too small.“Teenagers sometimes don’t realize how easy it is to change someone’s life,” she says. “Just seeing their buddy in the hall, and saying ‘hi’ can make a huge difference in their day.”That much was evident on March 18 when the Ocean City Board of Education formally recognized the club for its efforts. Tammy Bonino, mom of a club member, told the board it has “definitely been a happier year” for her daughter thanks to Best Buddies, while O’Neill credited Oteri — now chapter president — with the club’s success.“We could not have done it without Macy,” O’Neill said. “Macy just took it, and went with it.”Dillon Haskins and Jessica Therrien are among the ‘Best Buddies’ at Ocean City High School.In December, the club held a Christmas party during community lunch at OCHS — with members encouraged to bring a dozen of their favorite cookies for sharing. Best Buddies have also attended an OCHS girls’ varsity basketball game, and on Monday they made Rice Krispy treats in celebration of Autism Awareness Month.Each group interaction planned by O’Neill and Oteri is designed to meet the stated goal of Best Buddies International of fostering one-to-one friendships. The organization, founded in 1989 by Anthony K. Shriver, has grown to almost 1,900 middle school, high school and college chapters worldwide.Since OCHS created its own Best Buddies club, other local schools have taken notice.“We are getting calls and have become the model for others in our area,” O’Neill says.It takes a “special person” to be in the club, however, she cautions.“This is not a charity. You have to be willing to open your eyes, and open your heart, and look beyond the disability to see the whole person,” O’Neill adds. “We’ve been successful, I believe, because our peer buddies see that we are basically all the same.”That spirit of inclusion has prospered not only within the club “but within the school, itself,” according to Oteri.“Friendships created through Best Buddies benefit both members of the pair, and will hopefully last a lifetime,” she says.