Making the Connection: The Best Buddies Club Provides Friendships for the Disabled

While Disabilities Awareness Week will end in a few short days, the Best Buddies Club carries on the message of understanding and respect all year long.

According to Deric B. van Bree, the president of the U’s chapter, the program’s purpose is to pair college students with intellectually disabled people.

“The goal is just to create friendships?that’s about as basic as you can get,” said van Bree, who joined the program back in high school.

Dr. Michael Hardman, chair of the department of special education, agreed.

“It creates opportunities for one of the world’s most vulnerable, isolated populations. Many of the people have no social opportunities outside of the home,” he said.

Begun in 1989 on 33 college campuses, Best Buddies grew to 265 campuses world-wide. Eventually the program branched out to high schools, beginning with Taylorsville High School in Utah.

Anthony K. Shriver?the nephew of President Kennedy?founded the program after working with the Special Olympics. He found the work rewarding, but wanted something that lasted more than two weeks a year.

Maggie Mulder, now the vice president of the U’s chapter, joined Best Buddies for the same reason. She wanted to do a long-term project as part of the Council for Exceptional Children.

While she still enjoys the Special Olympics, she finds her work with the club, “much more fulfilling.”

“It’s really rewarding, and I’m very excited about it,” she added.

Volunteers and buddies in the club start by filling out an application, which is used to determine what personalities match the best.

After the match is made, the volunteers make a commitment to contact their buddies at least once per week.

“It only takes a minute to telephone someone and say hello,” said Kitty DeJarnatt, a special education teacher.

In addition to weekly contact, Best Buddies meet twice a month for a more interactive activity.

“It can be as simple as a walk,” said Tadd Killpack, the state director and program manager who’s been with the program for seven years.

Killpack explained that the activity is necessary because people have little exposure to the intellectually disabled.

He cited an experience where he went to McDonald’s with his buddy, and within minutes, the area around them had cleared out. He said that people often want to be sensitive, but they can also be nervous around those with disabilities.

“We help make it cool, we make it OK,” Killpack said.

Van Bree had to admit that when he first started the program, he was a little nervous.

“I had no experience whatsoever, I just thought it sounded fun,” he said.

Despite his inexperience, van Bree was convinced he wanted to join the program after he helped his buddy make a necklace for a girl he liked in the class. The boy was so excited after finishing the necklace that he jumped up and gave van Bree a big hug.

“After that, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” he said.

In addition to providing companionship, DeJarnatt pointed out that Best Buddies works on other projects, such as finding jobs for the disabled. As the coordinator for the Steps Transition Program, she also assists 18- to 22-year olds in making the transition from high school to college.

Another important program is the “E-Buddies,” which allows buddies from different states to communicate through email.

Killpack said the idea was first tested by having the CEO of AOL email a buddy. When that was successful, they implemented it on a larger scale.

“It’s basically like a pen-pal program,” he said.

But no matter which program they are involved with, volunteers say they feel like their work is making a difference.

“It’s such a joy to see someone be able to accomplish very basic things that we take for granted,” DeJarnatt explained. “[It gives] people an opportunity that wouldn’t normally be theirs. [They] go out and do activities and just become involved in the community.”

According to Hardman, the program benefits the volunteers as much as the buddies.

“The peers come out with a greater sense of self-worth and a much greater understanding of human differences,” he said.

“It’s just been amazing to see changes in students who have dared to try. They went in with the idea of serving, but in the end, it’s them who have been served,” DeJarnatt added.

While the rewards can be enormous, the work is not without its challenges. According to van Bree, one of the greatest challenges is just overcoming preconceptions.

“It was a real eye-opener for me because I realized they had the exact same dreams I had. They were only limited because we told them they were limited,” he said. “But I’ve learned that if you don’t challenge your preconceptions, they’ll challenge you.”

Killpack had a similar realization when he joined the club.

“You never give them a chance, but when you see what they can do, you’re in awe. You feel sort of stupid,” he explained.

Hardman points out that another challenge of the program is “the spontaneity of being a friend. Part of it is time and being able to spend the time they want and create activities that are meaningful,” he said.

“A lot of people think that because a person is on a different intellectual level, they could not possibly have anything in common. That’s a myth,” he continued.

Mulder knows first-hand how possible it is to make that connection.

“It really isn’t any different than going out and making your own friends,” she said?pointing out that on a commuter campus, everyone could use a push to be more social.

“Besides, it’s a very supportive environment. You’re never left hanging?there’s always someone to call,” she said.

In the end, volunteers in Best Buddies each have their own favorite experience or story.

For Mulder and van Bree, it was seeing their buddies enjoy a bowling activity.

“[I got] my butt kicked in bowling! ” van Bree said. “My buddy had neglected to tell me that he got the gold medal for bowling during the Special Olympics. There he was at 150, and I was only at 80. He intentionally didn’t tell me.”

Mulder noted that in addition to providing social interaction, the activity clarified everyone’s similarities.

“Everyone was on common ground,” she said.

For Killpack, his favorite moment came after a dinner with his buddy at a restaurant.

“We were walking out of the door when he stopped in the vestibule. I’m like, ‘what’s going on?’ Then suddenly, he dives to the floor after these pennies. He was looking around as if somebody was going to tackle him for these pennies. It was like he found a million dollars.

“It meant the world to him,” he explained. “It’s the small, simple things. It’s [also] the little things that you do that open up a life?a social life that they’ve never had before, but they’ve always wanted.”

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