Lehigh student to raise funds, awareness for Best Buddies
October 2, 2019


One Lehigh Senior High School junior is set out to make a difference by raising funds and awareness for "Champion of the Year," a Best Buddies International, gala that will be held in November.

"They were seeking out professionals throughout the community and when I heard about it at the Best Buddies conference I knew this was a challenge that I was up for even though I am in high school," said Elizabeth Salazar, Champion of the Year candidate. "Melanie Musick, the Southwest Florida director was shocked that I was willing to take on such a challenge, but after speaking with me she saw my determination and recognized my potential."

The high school student joined 10 other professionals in the community, including Amy Gaziao, Mother of Gianna; Andy Minoie, Starbucks at Miromar; Dale Earp, Earp Enterprises; David Collins Oliver, Talking Bear Consulting; Derek Newborn, Derek Newborn Fitness; Jenna Maringione, Florida Gulf Coast University Best Buddies; Ken Coker, Cross Country Mortgage; Steve Bray, Titan Restoration Construction; Susan Christiano, Engel & Voelkers Fort Myers Downtown and Tim Dupre, Conditioned Air.

The Champion of the Year gala, a semi-formal event, will be held from 6 to 11 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15, at the Forest Country Club, 6100 Club Blvd., Fort Myers. Individuals can buy a table for 10 for $1,500, or a seat for $150.

The gala will include a cocktail reception, live auction and dinner, presentation of champion candidates and mission partners, live auction and the announcement of the grand Champion of the Year.

"It's a fun event to go to and see who wins and gets recognized," she said.

The champions will spend eight weeks raising funds and awareness for Best Buddies, which will create more opportunities for friendships, jobs, and leadership development for those with intellectual and development disabilities. They are all competing against each other to see who can raise the most support and awareness.

Salazar's goal is to raise $5,000. Individuals can make a donation, as small as $10, by visiting

The nonprofit organization, Best Buddies is "dedicated to establishing a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment, leadership development, and inclusive living for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD)."

Salazar, 16, has been raised by a single mother who has taught her many things, such as hard work, determination and kindness to others is important to life.

"I have family members with intellectual and developmental disabilities as well. I plan on ending the avoidance and isolation of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities," she said.

Salazar's uncle, who has Down Syndrome, had a tough time in high school, due to experiences with bullies. Although she grew up with him around, she never saw him go out with friends, or try to find work, which upset her because he spent his time at home. The high school student said she wants to change that by letting people know they do not have to live that way, that they can have any life they dream to have.

Salazar became involved in Best Buddies her freshman year of high school and this year is vice president of the Lehigh Senior High School chapter. Jamauriah Rodgers, her buddy peer, is also her mission partner for Champion of the Year.

Salazar said she spends time talking to Rodgers on the phone, as well as meeting up with a few times a week.

"We do fundraisers with each other. We are going to do a bake sale soon. We see each other in school. We see each other two, or three times a week," she said. "We are also going to Homecoming together."

She explained that the club has meeting dates, as well as participates in service hours, such as picking up trash around school, writing Christmas cards for the military and having a teddy bear drive for Golisano Hospital.

Salazar explained that Best Buddies changed how she acts in school by making more people feel included.

"To me Best Buddies is including anyone with or without IDD, if there is something that makes you 'different' doesn't mean that you have to be left out of the crowd, be the most important person in a big crowd," she wrote in her Champion of the Year profile.


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