Students in Lynn Higgs’ special education class at Westlake High School were recently in the holiday spirit and bringing their friends along with them.

Westlake’s Best Buddies club is new this year, but is already gaining in popularity. Higgs’ five Structured teaching, Opportunities for social inclusion, Active learning and Rigor (SOAR) students are joined by up to 20 general education students at a meeting, who come and go as their schedules allow. The meetings are held during the school’s one-hour lunches — Wolverine Time — on Fridays.

“The numbers keep growing,” Higgs said. “The interest was incredible.” Last month, the group made crafts like gingerbread houses, Christmas tree ornaments and personalized stockings. There was also a Secret Santa swap thanks to donated gift cards from Dollar General.

Taylor Vanzego, a senior, is president of the club. She is in the Teacher Academy of Maryland program and is interested in studying early childhood education and special education. “You hear about stereotypes, but being here you can see another perspective,” Vanzego said. Zach Leyson, a freshman, said the club is fun and others should join to support kids with autism.

Junior Derrica Washington is part of Best Buddies because she likes helping people. “It’s a good experience,” said Washington, who is also active in Relay for Life. “They’re not really different,” she said of students in Higgs’ class. “They just have a different thought process. They’re out of the box thinkers.”

Best Buddies is an international organization that works to enhance the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), according to its website. The nonprofit aims to end isolation — social, physical and economic — of people with IDD by providing friendships with peers and more opportunities for employment, advocacy and other outlets.

Higgs’ students run a daily coffee shop for faculty using the proceeds to fund Community Based Instruction (CBI) field trips. One field trip included shopping for the Best Buddies Thanksgiving feast. Club members were given a list of recipes they would make for the lunch with Higgs’ kids making a shopping list, budgeting and going to the market to pick up ingredients their friends needed for each dish. The group created posters to bring awareness to disabilities using superheroes as subjects. Potential upcoming activities include movie nights, a meet-and-greet for parents and senior Jewel Robinson is brainstorming ideas on what the group can do for Autism Awareness Day on April 2.

The club got off to a slow start in the beginning of the year, but it’s picking up as word gets out. “We’re firing on all cylinders,” Higgs said.