By James Humphrey
At a table in the middle of a large room at Thanksgiving dinner for Best Buddies, the organization’s president, Leisa Hutchison, 55, scooped food from her son Ben’s plate and fed it to him.
Ben, 21, has FG syndrome – a rare X-chromosome linked syndrome that causes physical and developmental abnormalities.
The event, which Hutchison had spearheaded, attracted hundreds: Best Buddies members, their friends, parents, and mentors. It was a perfect illustration of how Hutchison, who is also an associate clinical professor in the communications disorders department at WKU, has devoted over 30 years of her life to helping the disabled.
“I started working with people with disabilities in 1986. It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said.
Hutchison, born in 1962, is originally from Glasgow, Kentucky.
Hutchison’s father was a social worker and took disabled children to the hospital for medical procedures when Hutchison was a child.
Hutchison started working as a speech therapist in 1986, when she graduated with her master’s degree from the University of Kentucky. “I had talked to several friends that were therapists and I shadowed someone that was a therapist and I really liked it,” she said.
Leisa married David Hutchison in 1988. David was also involved in education, serving as the principal of Drakes Creek Middle School. Leisa and her husband now live in Bowling Green.
Ben, their only son, was born in 1996. He was diagnosed with FG syndrome when he was about a year old. Ben is nonverbal; he uses a speech device. He graduated from South Warren High School in 2017. He doesn’t go to WKU, but gets services from the WKU-affiliated Clinical Education Complex and Kelly Autism Program.
“I practiced speech pathology for 10 years before I had my son. I feel that I am a much better therapist, advocate, and person from having him as my son,” said Hutchison.
Hutchison was appointed by Gov. Steve Beshear to the Kentucky State Advisory Panel for Exceptional Children in 2011, serving two three-year terms. This panel advises the state Department of Education in policy development and implementation for students who receive special education services.
The family has two dogs, both goldendoodles.
Hutchison is active in her church, Greenwood Park Church of Christ in Bowling Green, and is the faculty advisor for Hilltoppers for Christ, a campus ministry affiliated with the church.
“She’s very active in her church,” said Carol Greer, whose daughter is in the Best Buddies program.
Carol Greer, 56, is the mother of Ginna Greer, 24, the current Buddy leader.
Hutchison’s students are primarily upperclassmen and master’s students; in the fall 2017 semester, all her classes were 400- or 500- level.
Best Buddies, founded in 1989, is active in all 50 states and in over 50 different countries. They have chapters for elementary school, middle school, high school, and college. The hallmark of Best Buddies is the Peer Buddy program, where a disabled person, called a “Buddy,” is matched with a peer within a few years of their own age, called a “Peer Buddy,” who acts as a mentor.
The WKU chapter of Best Buddies, like all other college chapters of Best Buddies, helps young adults with disabilities. It currently has 180 members.
Alan Wells, 38, is one of those Buddies. He holds Leisa in high regard.
“She is very good to me,” he says. “Leisa helped me make friends through Best Buddies. I love Best Buddies.”
Hutchison has been the faculty leader of the WKU chapter of Best Buddies since it was founded in 2007. Hutchison’s favorite thing about working in Best Buddies is watching friendships form and grow. Ben is also a member of Best Buddies.
“Everybody accepts everybody just the way they are,” she says.
Greer, 56, is the mother of Ginna Greer, 24, the current Buddy leader.
Speaking to her experience with Leisa, Greer says: “It’s been wonderful. She’s a friend of mine and I enjoy spending time with her.”
Alex Johnston, 19, has been a member of Best Buddies for over a year and is a Peer Buddy.
“I think she’s doing a good job [leading the organization],” she said.