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A Baldwin High School special education teacher is competing to become the statewide champion for Best Buddies by promising a student a chance to shave his long beard.
Eric Jankoski, 38, of Scott, helped launch a chapter of Best Buddies – a global organization that focuses on inclusion for people with disabilities – at Baldwin High School last year. The chapter pairs students with disabilities to students without disabilities to foster friendships between the two.
Since its launch, the program has around 40 students involved, Jankoski said, and more have recently signed up. His involvement with the chapter, paired with the work he already does within the high school for students with disabilities, caught the attention Best Buddies.
“He lives and breathes what Best Buddies is all about,” said Samantha Civitate, director of Best Buddies Pittsburgh. “He’s involved as the advisor for the chapter at Baldwin (High School) and we’ve just seen the program grow there tremendously. We felt he’d be the perfect candidate.”
Every year, the chapters of Best Buddies in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia host separate fundraiser galas. With covid-19 restrictions in place, the organization decided to host a virtual statewide gala instead. It will be held at 8 p.m. on Nov. 13, with online bidding for auction items held Nov. 10-13.
As part of the fundraising efforts, candidates like Jankoski are chosen to compete to see who can raise the most money for the organization. This year, Jankoski is one of 21 champion candidates.
“You’re crowned as champion if you get the most donations,” he said. Jankoski said he has hit his goal, but wanted to keep the amount a secret to maintain a competitive edge.
The teacher said he has been bearded for a long time. So he thought it would be a great way to incentivize people to give to the organization if he promised to allow one of them to shave it off. And if someone is uncomfortable shaving him in person, Jankoski said his wife and three children will do it while streaming it live on Facebook.
He hopes to host a virtual game and trivia night for the organization soon as another effort to raise money and awareness.
“I’m trying to think of things not just about raising money,” he said. “I want the chance for people to experience or win something, too.”
He said being nominated is an honor. He’s excited to spread Best Buddies’ mission, which focuses on fostering one-to-one friendships, promoting employment and inclusive living, develops leadership skills in people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
At Baldwin, Jankoski said the program focuses on pairing students.
“They can engage in all sorts of things with that,” he said. “They can be a friend and be there just like everyone else. They can call or text or video chat with each other – have game nights, movie nights, indoor scavenger hunts … that face-to-face connection gives them that extra time and practice to work on social skills.”
Jankoski, who has worked with people who live with disabilities since high school, has worked at Baldwin High School for 10 years. Throughout the years, he has also volunteered with Special Olympics and helped found the Baldwin Bean Shop, a café in the high school that teaches students with special needs life and job skills.
“Working in special education just really became something I really enjoy doing and something I know I can make a difference for,” he said.
Civitate said the Best Buddies chapter program in schools has doubled in the last 18 months, with 50 schools throughout Western Pennsylvania that have started their own. Some of those include Allderdice High School, University of Pittsburgh, Carlow and Duquesne universities.
She hopes Jankoski’s enthusiasm inspires others to follow suit. So far, the support has been widespread.
“I think as a country, we’re really understanding the social isolation that people with disabilities face,” she said, referencing newfound isolation forced onto society by covid-19 restrictions.
“So people are understanding the need for our services and really showing support,” Civitate said.
To donate to Jankoski’s campaign, visit his profile through Best Buddies. Those who donate $10 or more will be considered as someone to shave off his beard.
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