Last year's theme of the statewide Best Buddies Ball was Hollywood, and students dressed in glamorous prom-like attire to walk the red carpet and have their photographs taken with life-size cardboard cutouts of movie stars, according to Jessica Guo, 18, a Staples High School senior.

For this year's 13th annual Best Buddies Ball on Saturday, organizers settled on Nations Around the World and students from around the state came to the event Westport wearing costumes reflecting international cultures.

Samantha Hodgson, 19, of Westport, a Staples senior, chose an authentic costume from Colombia, her mother's native land. She even carried a small Colombian flag in her South American handbag.

Not everyone dressed up for the event, which was held at Bedford Middle School but hosted by the Staples High School chapter of Best Buddies. The ball is an event where chapters from around the state enjoy a night of music, food, dancing, and friendship.

Best Buddies is an international nonprofit organization founded in 1989 by Anthony K. Shriver to bring people with intellectual and developmental disabilities together with others who are not disabled to create opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development.

The organization has grown from one chapter to nearly 1,500 middle school, high school and college chapters worldwide. At Staples, there are about 125 members including so many non-disabled members that not everyone is paired with a Buddy. But they all work together to organize fundraisers and engage in fun activities with chapter Buddies.

"We've done ice skating and bowling," said Jillian Pecoriello, 18, a Staples senior and Hodgson's Buddy. "Sam won when we went bowling," Pecoriello said, prompting Hodgson to let out a victory whoop and pump her fist.

"Best Buddies is meant to break down barriers between mainstream students and special-needs students. Everyone should be together. The idea for being paired with buddies is to form one-on-to-one friendships and get to know each other much better," Pecoriello said.

Hodgson described the program as "having a lot of fun, being with friends and playing games with my friends."

In years past, non-disabled students might have kept to themselves in the school cafeteria while special-needs students sat at their own table. Best Buddies has provided opportunities to develop friendships within the entire student body.

Thomas Bonner, 15, a Staples sophomore, said he joined Best Buddies because it is a good cause and he heard it is a lot of fun. "It gives you an opportunity to branch out and make friends from all over the school," he said.

"We make sure they're included in society. We make sure we sit with them at lunch and say hi in the halls," said Jocelyn Krim, a 16-year-old Staples sophomore.

"We get new friends too. Everybody makes friends. I love friends," said Parker Stakoff, 15, a sophomore at Staples.

There are advantages to forming friendships with people who might not otherwise be part of one's typical circle of friends, students said.

"My sibling is special needs and it's important for kids like him to have friendships just like the rest of us," said Madison Horne, 17, a Staples senior. Although her 14-year-old brother Cole Horne's Buddy was at the ball Madison sat at Cole's table and joined him on the dance floor.

"You learn new things about people that you wouldn't expect," said Staples sophomore Amanda Horowitz, 15. She isn't paired with a Buddy but is grateful that her friend Madison "Maddy" Rozynek, 16, is willing to share time with her Buddy Alexander Baumann, 16, of Westport.

Rozynek said spending time with Baumann has allowed both teens to see the world through his eyes.

"It's a new perspective," Horowitz said, adding that one of the benefits of the Best Buddies program is that non-disabled students see past disabilities. "If someone asks, `What's Alexander like?' the first thing that comes to mind is that he's strong, he's really athletic and he loves to smile," she said.

He's quite a dancer, too. Baumann was one of the first people on the dance floor performing to the music of the Kandoo Band, a group of six musicians out of the shoreline town of Madison, all of whom were born with the rare condition called Williams syndrome.

Faculty advisor Patty McQuone said it isn't only the students who enjoy their participation in the Best Buddies program. "It's just priceless. It's so rewarding. Besides my two kids, this is the best thing I've ever done in my life," McQuone said.

For some of the nearly 200 people who attended the Best Buddies Ball, the event capped a day of competition in the Special Olympics Southwest Regional Games held earlier at Weston high and middle schools.

"They've got a band playing. They've got some food and music. It's a cool thing," said Chris Nelson of Norwalk, who earlier in the day competed in Special Olympics swimming events and won three medals.