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TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — DeSoto County recently became the beneficiary of the Best Buddies program that helps developmentally disabled children make friends with their classmates in school.

The program aims to help developmentally disabled students form friendships with their peers, integrate into the workforce, and participate in leadership opportunities.

The program was started at Lewisburg High School in Olive Branch two-and-a-half years ago, but is expanding thanks to significant grant funding received in November to add the program to the Mississippi Charter.

DeSoto County Family Resource Center Regional Coordinator Abby McDonald said the program pairs students who are selected by the school system.

McDonald said bringing the program to Mississippi for the first time was a huge get for the Family Resource Center based in DeSoto County.

“They want to take it statewide, but for now DeSoto County is the pilot,” McDonald said.

The startup cost of adding the program to the Mississippi Charter was $150,000, but the Tennessee Charter covered half of the amount due to Lewisburg High School being in its purview. The other half was paid by The Family Resource Center.

An additional $20,000 was additionally raised at the “Friendship Walk” held in November in Southaven to raise funds for the program in DeSoto County.

The contract between the Family Resource Center and the Best Buddies program sets a few guidelines for the program, award funds will be used to start 10-15 school-based chapters in Mississippi schools and serve a minimum of 40 individuals with developmental disabilities.

The Family Resource Center covers the northern part of the state, while Families First covers the rest, but the two organizations came together to bring the Best Buddies program to Mississippi.

Exiting Best Buddies Regional Director Melissa Todd started as a volunteer and parent who wanted to bring the Best Buddies program to Memphis — Nashville was the only Tennessee city that had the program — but in her capacity as director, she began looking south to Mississippi after realizing there was a great need.

“We were getting calls asking us to start a chapter in Lewisburg, but there was no Best Buddies program in Mississippi. Since we were not far from there, I got permission to go ahead and start a chapter there in Mississippi, and we could run it out of the Memphis office,” Todd said.

Best Buddies has over 2,000 chapters worldwide, and 1,500 students involved just in Memphis, Todd said.

Future expansion plans for the program include adding it to schools in Hernando and Southaven in DeSoto County, nearby Tate County, Tunica County, and eventually branching out into the rest of northeastern Mississippi.

“This is very, very new. Lewisburg was chartered under the Tennessee Charter…they’re still going strong and through their success, they were able to expand into Lewisburg Middle School…as far as moving into other schools, that’s why we needed to get the program into our Mississippi Charter,” DeSoto County Family Resource Center Regional Coordinator Christina McCafferty said.

DeSoto County stay-at-home mother Denise Tibbens advocated to bring the program to the state because her daughter Morgan, who was born with Down syndrome, is finishing her education at charter school Lewisburg High in Olive Branch this year, the only school in the state that supported the program under the Tennessee Charter.

Tibbens’ other daughter Taylor worked for The Family Resource Center in DeSoto County, and reached out to the Center to bring the program to Mississippi.

Tibbens said the program has grown in the three years it has been in operation.

“Each year we have more buddies than students that need buddies,” Tibbens said.

Lewisburg High School junior Morgan Tibbens has never believed in the word “no” despite the physical and mental challenges she faces, and blossomed when her high school started doing the Best Buddies program.

The kids will do typical childhood activities with their Best Buddies, from football games and sleepovers to going out for food or spending holidays together. At school, students will eat lunch with their buddies, and when one’s best buddy is unavailable, a substitute can be called.

Morgan Tibbens has won Miss Congeniality at the Miss Lewisburg pageant, owns her own business selling bath products called DaBombs by Morgan, which are in 47 stores in seven states, and hopes to attend Mississippi State University after high school.

“My goal is to treat Morgan as normal as possible, and if she wants to do something, I’m not going to tell her no, and if she decides she can do it, then we’re going to do it,” Tibbens said.