SJCSO teams up with “Best Buddies Walk”; raising money for students with special needs

St. Johns County, Fla. — Hundreds gathered at St. Augustine Beach to raise money and awareness for kids with special needs Saturday.

The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office teamed up with “Best Buddies”, a program in most local schools that matches students with other students who have special needs, making sure everybody is included on local campuses.

Mike Strausbaugh’s daughter, Avery, had a best buddy throughout high school.

Strausbaugh tells Action News Jax having that connection meant the world to his daughter. “

We want her to be part of the world, we want her to see and have the opportunities to experience everything that everybody else does,” Strausbaugh said.

Joseph Colsant was also a part of the Best Buddies program throughout high school. He joined back when he was a freshman. He says it changed his life.

“You hang out with friends and want to spend time with friends before you graduate high school,” Colsant said.

He and Avery were among hundreds who hit the beach Saturday morning for the Best Buddies’ first walk in St. Augustine. Program advisor Becci Smith told Action News Jax there was supposed to be a “Friendship” walk earlier in the year at Jax Beach, but the COVID-19 pandemic roadblocked the event.

“It’s a way to include them in our campus, and now moreover, to include them in our community,” Smith said.

Advocating for kids with special needs is close to the hearts of Sheriff Rob Hardwick and his wife, Kendall, who’ve made a career out of working with kids in schools.

“They’re no different than you and I are. We have challenges in life too as well just as they have challenges, so we want to make sure they’re accepted, embraced, feel a part of us,” Hardwick said.

He says good relationships between law enforcement and those with special needs is paramount.

“We want our deputy sheriffs and our law enforcement to be involved too as well, and we don’t want any member of our community to be intimidated or scared,” Hardwick added.

Hardwick tells Action News Jax the sheriff’s office plans to give people with disabilities special bracelets so officers will know how to respond accordingly.