Seymour High School students named Buddy Pair of the Year

Aidan Hiester and A.J. Engel had a school year to remember.

As part of Seymour High School’s new Best Buddies club, they participated in a holiday party and monthly club meetings. Other activities were scheduled but wound up being canceled with schools closing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Outside of the club, they went to an Indiana Pacers game, ran together, attended basketball games, went out to eat and sang at the top of their lungs in A.J.’s kitchen.

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One could say they were quite a pair.

Indiana’s Best Buddies program thought so, too. The organization recently announced its outstanding chapter award winners, and Hiester and Engel were named Buddy Pair of the Year.

“It left me speechless in the best way possible,” Hiester, a senior, said of learning about the award. “I honestly didn’t expect it at all but am very humbled and honored to have received this award alongside one of my best buddies.”

Engel, a sophomore, said he was surprised, too.

“Being around Aidan, she is my best friend, like my sister. We did a lot of cool things — went to a Pacers game, Christmas caroling. We just have fun together,” he said. “Being a part of Best Buddies is amazing. I’m excited about next year and will miss Aidan but will gain another friend. It won’t be the same without Aidan, but it will still be fun.”

Best Buddies offers one-to-one friendship, leadership development and integrated employment programs for individuals with and without disabilities. The Indiana chapter of the international nonprofit organization was established in 2016.

According to, as of Jan. 1, there were 102 chapters with 6,411 participants in 49 cities and 30 counties in Indiana.

The club started at Seymour High School at the start of the 2019-20 school year. Special education teacher Alanie Flack learned about the program while teaching at Columbus East and Columbus North high schools. When she came to Seymour in the fall of 2018 and realized the school didn’t have a chapter, she made it a goal to establish one.

She shared the idea with fellow Academy teacher Rachel Cain, who helped coach the unified track and field team and had a lot of connections with students outside of their program.

“SHS and the Seymour community have been very supportive of our students and our program, so I knew that Best Buddies would be a great fit and another way to show off the great things that are happening at SHS,” Flack said.

“Alanie and I had both envisioned a club that could promote inclusion,” Cain said. “We wanted more of our students to create friendships and interact with other students that they normally wouldn’t.”

Once the club was approved by the school and corporation, the Academy students and peer tutors helped spread the word. Students completed applications, and Flack and Cain matched peers with buddies based on their interests and participation levels.

There wound up being 31 students in the club.

“That is a great number for a chapter, especially a brand-new chapter,” Flack said. “One student was added in later and is an associate member, which means the student is not matched in a one-to-one friendship but is able to participate in all of the club activities.”

The leadership team of Payton Toepfert, president; Samantha Foster, vice president; and Engel, buddy director, created fun activities for the club members to do together.

“The interactions between our buddy pairs were so special,” Cain said. “It just made you smile seeing them all together. They became friends. They said ‘hey’ in the hallways, texted and called each other, ate lunches together, went to ballgames, were invited to go out to eat and so on. They created a true friendship and included each other, which is our ultimate goal.”

Flack said she saw a lot of positive interactions between students.

“True friendships were formed,” she said. “I heard so many positive reports from parents and students regarding activities that were happening. Some of our students have never gotten a phone call from a friend or a social visitor at their home just for them. One of our club members is now considered part of their buddy’s family.”

With Hiester and Engel being named Buddy Pair of the Year, Flack said she was unaware of their nomination until she saw the list of award winners in a newsletter she received via email.

At the time, she was in a Google Meet for virtual office hours and shared the news with other staff members on the call.

“It was a total surprise,” Flack said. “I was first shocked but then so very proud of not only A.J. and Aidan but our whole club and our school community who supported the establishment of our club.”

She then sent a screenshot of the newsletter to Cain.

“I immediately called her, and we both cheered and talked about how much those two deserved it,” Cain said. “I felt that they had a wonderful connection that carried over so well in several different ways. They were matched as buddies because they had many interests that were similar, and they both love sports. They did many activities together in school and outside of school together, and their friendship was genuine.”

On their application, students had to commit to two activities per month with one being the whole club activity, and they had to communicate at least once a week via text, phone or in-person.

Flack said Hiester and Engel went above and beyond those requirements.

“I was pleasantly surprised to hear A.J. talk about all the activities he was doing with Aidan,” Flack said. “It shows that this is a true friendship and not just a commitment they made to a club. That is the desired outcome of this club, and this buddy pair really embodies that mission.”

Hiester describes Engel as “a one-of-a-kind kid who is always so happy and outgoing toward everyone he knows.”

“There’s not a time when I walk with him in the hallways or go out with him that people aren’t yelling his name or he’s going out of his way to talk to someone,” Hiester said. “A.J. is amazing at making everyone around him feel loved and worthy, and he’s pretty funny, too.”

They definitely made an impact on each other.

“He has helped me realize that although not every day is perfect, it’s still a good day,” Hiester said. “He is very passionate about the people and the things he loves, including his faith, which has pushed me to be passionate about the things I love, as well. A.J. has taught me that smiles are contagious and the smallest things can make the biggest difference.”

Hiester said she joined the club to further her friendship with the Academy students, and she made lifelong friendships in the process.

“Having a club like this in high school or really any school at all is extremely important,” she said. “It teaches kids like me that being OK is different. The kids in the Academy are just as important, just as loved and just as worthy as anyone else out there. It’s incredible the impact that this club and many other activities such as unified track and peer tutoring can have on someone.”

Hiester said she and Engel prove that best friends can be different and still love each other just the same.

“I know A.J. has made a lasting impact on me, and my only hope is that we can make a lasting impact on this community,” she said.

Flack and Cain hope to get the club restarted in the fall and increase membership.

“While we might have to be creative with our chapter setup and events given the pandemic concerns, I just want to see more students involved in this amazing opportunity,” Flack said.

“Inclusion is an opportunity to come together. It elevates all,” Cain said. “Happiness is inclusive. Be somebody who makes everybody feel like a somebody. Be a friend. Be a buddy. It will forever change your life. Who wouldn’t want to be involved?”

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For information about Best Buddies Indiana, visit