By Mike Lang
WILMINGTON — It was an 18th birthday Olivia Cusack might never forget.
A smile crossed her face and she danced a bit when she was introduced to the full house at the Blue-Gold Fashion Show last Friday night at St. Mark’s High School. Olivia and several friends were all dressed up for the annual event that raises funds and awareness for the Delaware Foundation Reaching Citizens with Intellectual Disabilities (DFRC).
“I’ve never seen her so excited,” said Olivia’s mother, Libby, a 1984 St. Mark’s graduate. “She’s been looking forward to this all month.”
Olivia was born with a rare brain malformation and sometimes suffers seizures, her mother said. This was her second year participating in the fashion show and her 10th year as part of DFRC’s friendship or “buddy” program, which teams clients with high school students for activities throughout the year.
St. Mark’s was the first high school in the country to organize the buddy program, the first in Delaware with a Blue-Gold Club, which began in 1983. This week has been Blue-Gold Week at the school, kicking off with the 25th annual fashion show, a two-night event that gave about 100 students, along with some of the buddies and the event’s moderators, a chance to strut their stuff on stage in the school auditorium.
The observance has continued this week with basketball, pingpong and volleyball tournaments, and tonight is soccer’s turn. The week culminates with a dance tomorrow night; this year’s theme is “Grease.”
Blue-Gold Week is part of an endeavor that lasts the entire school year at St. Mark’s. The students involved in the friendship program participated in a kickoff picnic, Halloween party, Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas/New Year’s party and Valentine’s Day party. The year will end with an ice cream social. That’s where senior Amanda Walsh met her buddy, Kristen Hanifee, as a sophomore.
“Right when I met her was when I knew that I wanted to do this for the rest of my high school career,” Walsh said. “I think the thing that inspires me the most about our buddies is that they’re so down-to-earth. They love life. You’ll never see one of our buddies unhappy. They’re the happiest people I know.”
The buddy program is limited to upperclassmen, but freshmen and sophomores are encouraged to get involved. At the Blue-Gold Week events they help set up and clean up and work the concession stand.
“We need every single person for this to work,” said Walsh, whose buddy for DFRC’s statewide flagship event, June’s Blue-Gold football game, will be Olivia Cusack. Walsh will attend as an ambassador for her school.
Walsh is the executive chair of St. Mark’s Blue-Gold Club this year and says the club is one of the most popular activities at the school. She is supported by four vice chairs and a large leadership team that plans and executes the activities.
The experience has taught her a lot about time management as well as helping other people.
“We’ve really figured out how to work together as an organization, as a team. It just teaches you so much about life in general,” she said.
A primary function is fund raising for DFRC. “We’ve donated close to $500,000 in the past 20 years,” said Diane Kuczmarski, one of three moderators of the St. Mark’s club. The club also gives money to the St. Mark’s Blue-Gold Scholarship Fund.
Each of the teams in the sports tournaments paid a fee to enter, said Patrice Soares, another moderator. Those funds, along with whatever is raised through concession sales, will go to DFRC or to the scholarship fund.
‘It’s about how we treat each other’
More important than fund raising is changing attitudes, said Tony Glenn, executive director of DFRC.
“It’s not even about fund raising. It’s about how we treat each other, how we see each other as a gift, and how sacred each life is. And nobody does it better than the folks here at St. Mark’s,” he said.
Glenn was a physical education teacher at St. Mark’s and a member of the statewide Blue-Gold Committee in 1983 when he told his students the committee was looking for ways to expand into the high schools. They reacted with enthusiasm and established the first school club in Delaware. Today, he said, more than 50 such clubs exist in the state. He credits high school students with “literally changing consciousness, the way we look at each other. We don’t see disability any more, we see the great gift of the person and the abilities of the person.”
Many of the students who get involved expect that they are going to change someone’s life, Soares said, but it’s often the other way around. “I think it’s surprising for a lot of the students.”
Walsh agreed. “I think it stays with people a long time after they leave St. Mark’s. It’s been such an amazing experience. I can’t imagine how I would view my life and how I would view life in general if I hadn’t done this.”