GILBERT, Ariz. — For four years, in the halls of Higley High School in Gilbert, Aubrey Ewing and Mackenzie Hancock have been inseparable.
Ewing holds Hancock's hand, offering words of reassurance. Both girls lean on each other, weathering the awkward years of adolescence.
"She makes me laugh every time I see her, so it’s amazing to have her," Hancock said. "She’s one person I can go to for advice or everything to do with high school friends or anything like that."
Both girls are part of a club called Best Buddies. The club is a local chapter of a national organization that pairs students with kids who live with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
The club has grown by leaps and bounds in just a few short years, becoming the most popular club in the school, with more than 200 members.
"I feel like Best Buddies has definitely become a big thing because our generation likes to make everybody feel included and everyone feel loved," Ewing said.
Ewing and Hancock's friendship has even become an inspiration at the national level. The two students were invited to record a message for the national Best Buddies graduation, which will be held online and watched by hundreds of thousands of people across the country.
Club organizers say the program represents a real social shift toward acceptance and inclusion for people with disabilities — part of a generation that finds it unacceptable to tease or bully people because of their challenges.
"This generation knows what it’s like to be the underdog a little bit. Just naturally they know it’s a lot easier and a lot more fun to be nice to people," said Trevor Paxton the director of development for Best Buddies at Higley High School. "It’s been a really special experience to watch students just say, 'it’s not OK to pick on somebody and it is OK to be friends with them.'"
Ewing and Hancock are already making plans to remain friends, long after high school.
Ewing plans to attend Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, and Hancock is planning multiple visits next year. They say theirs is a lasting friendship that teaches valuable lessons about kindness and caring, regardless of ability.
This story was originally published by Steve Irvin on Scripps station KNXV in Phoenix.