"We get along like sisters," says 28-year-old Jennifer Toth of her relationship with 22-year-old Amy Womack. When asked about their similarities and differences, Jen replies, "We're not alike, because Amy bleaches her hair," but then remembers that they both enjoy going to the movies or the mall and talking about boys. "I don't know," she responds on second thought, "if there's really anything different about us."
To the outsider, the difference lies in Jen's classification as intellectually disabled. Amy and Jen, of Fairfield, Connecticut, belong to Best Buddies.
Best Buddies was founded in 1989 by Anthony Shriver, the son of Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics. The enthusiasm Anthony witnessed in volunteers during the Special Olympics provided him with the inspiration for Best Buddies, a nonprofit organization that pairs the intellectually disabled with volunteers who offer them one-to-one friendship and increased social integration. Volunteers are classified as Peer Buddies (middle and high school), College Buddies, Citizen Buddies (postcollege), or e-Buddies (email only).
For three years, Amy has been part of the Fairfield University Best Buddies chapter. Organized activities take place once a month, but she and Jen see each other almost weekly. "One of my best friends in high school had a sister with an intellectual disability," recalls Amy as she relates her expectations on entering Best Buddies. "So I knew something, but I didn't know what it meant to be a friend."
For Jen's birthday, Amy took her to New York City, where they strolled, lunched, visited Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, and watched wrestling, on which Jen is quite the expert. "We saw Hulk Hogan!" she beams. Jen, who lives with her parents, works part-time in a Wal-Mart cosmetics department. While Amy knows that she could have a good career in special needs, she prefers business, specifically marketing, as her full-time pursuit. Membership in Best Buddies allows her to work in special needs without sacrificing her first-choice career.
When Amy recently graduated and got a new apartment in nearby Bridgeport, Jen was among the first to see it. "This would be good for a dinner party," she hinted. That's sure to be forthcoming. Since she has graduated, Amy can no longer be a College Buddy, so she plans to move into the Best Buddies Citizens program and continue her friendship with Jen.
In Orlando, Florida, Buddy Michael Wheeler, 46, and Citizen Buddy Joe Columbus, 45, claim a friendship going back eight years. Joe had a history of volunteerism on behalf of nonprofit organizations but never saw the direct effects of his work. "I wanted to see the person my efforts were touching," he says. "I wanted the one-on-one feeling of something like Best Buddies."
Joe works as general manager of EDX Electronics. The extensive background checking required by Best Buddies meant that he had to wait three months between applying and being paired with Michael, who bags and carries groceries at a local supermarket. Having a Buddy does not imply a change in routine or special effort, Joe explains. You just include one more person in the occasional everyday activity--shopping, a picnic with the family, a movie, or a meal. "What's ordinary to me," he reflects, "is memorable to him."
Michael fondly recalls the time that Joe picked him up and took him to his house for a family cookout that included puzzles and games in addition to the food. He remembers the shirt Joe gave him for Christmas. For his part, he got Joe a pen inscribed with his name. "He probably uses it all the time at work," he smiles. "He said he needed a new work pen."
Not knowing what to expect when he volunteered to be a Citizen Buddy, Joe found himself surprised at seeing Michael both active and successful in the community. "He's changed my life," he claims, noting his increased awareness of the obstacles faced by a person with mental disabilities. Michael also enjoys a changed life. "I get to do a lot more things than I used to," he says as he recounts some of the times Joe has picked him up to take him here or there.
High school students often get a bum rap, believes Best Buddies Iowa director Ann Stanley, but they prove themselves just as dedicated as adults. Buddying at this age counteracts the social ostracism often experienced by intellectually disabled students who may sit in the same classroom as others but not be invited to sit at the same lunch table. The excluded become included as they and their Peer Buddies walk down the hall with each other, sit together during assemblies, and occasionally party at each other's houses. The rewards go both ways. Writes one Peer Buddy of her Buddy, "He has taught me many things, although I have only taught him how to skip. He has taught me how to be a better friend."
Eighteen-year-old Peer Buddy Gabriel Carnes of Johnston, a Des Moines suburb, agrees. "I used to look at kids with disabilities and think, 'That's so sad. Look at what they don't have.' Now I see what they do have." A required thirty hours of community service for a government service program led him to Best Buddies and seventeen-year-old Matthew Stange. The two high schoolers held in common a love of music (both sing in choirs) and video games.
"Kids hesitate to join Best Buddies because they think they won't know how to act," Gabe explains. "I tell them to act just like they would with any friend." He admires Matthew's crazy humor and his perseverance. "If he doesn't make it into the top choir one year, he just does his best in the one he's in and tries again the next year." Matthew, for his part, considers Gabe one of the "funnest and funniest" people he's ever known. Both agree that the friendship has made Matthew more social. He recalls playing Risk at a New Year's Eve party with Gabe. "Someday when I teach my kids how to play Risk," he promises, "I'm going to tell them about that." Gabe treasures the time he sang at the reception after a choir concert and the sight of Matthew standing first in line to congratulate him.
The thirty hours have turned into more than three hundred. "I got into this as a requirement," admits Gabe, "but I have stayed because it keeps me honest and humble, and shows me how one person can help another." As vice president of the Johnston High School Best Buddies chapter, he coordinated its fund-raising book drive and helped the group win Iowa's Best Buddies Chapter Award last year. While his future plans include community college for core courses and nearby Drake University for vocal performance, Gabe plans to remain active at three levels: as a College Buddy, as mentor for the new vice president of the high school chapter, and possibly as organizer of Best Buddies in Johnston middle schools.
For the moment, the busy teenagers find themselves hard pressed to exchange more than phone calls. Gabe works a summer job and performs in a musical in which he plays--ironically--the intellectually disabled hero. Matthew is volunteering for the Christian work camp YouthWorks, going to Boston to rebuild and repaint houses. Neither worries. "We'll keep our friendship up," says Matthew.
Best Buddies ventured into supported employment in 1994. Acting as a middleman for the first week or two of a new job, a Best Buddies employment coach learns the required tasks himself, then teaches the Buddy at a pace he can handle. He also checks for safety issues, develops simple aids such as a board listing daily tasks, and introduces the Buddy to coworkers--potential friends in the workplace. As the Buddy absorbs the new knowledge and attains an acceptable efficiency rate, the employment coach appears less and less and finally withdraws altogether. Placed according to a combination of their work choice, functional level, and the job market, Buddies now hold jobs sorting mail, entering data, stocking inventory, answering phones, and shredding paper, among others. Their average pay in California, according to jobs supervisor Teri Kelsall, runs 23 percent above the state's minimum wage.
Kenton Chin, 43, drives the daily commute from his condo in West Los Angeles to downtown, where he works in the human resources department of Guess?, the clothing manufacturer. His duties include filing, pulling up on a computer the names and addresses of company employees across the country to whom he mails birthday cards each month, and sending out benefit packages to new employees. His Best Buddies trainer worked with him for three weeks on the filing and taught him how to use email when he got a company computer. To learn more, Kenton attends computer classes in a community adult education program and relies on coworkers to teach him further steps, such as how to pull up an employee by ID number. He has earned both their respect and friendship. "We go out and do parties together," he says of them.
Besides his regular duties, Kenton has volunteered to assist with tent sales and employee parties. His company describes him as "a tremendous asset, an outstanding employee, and a pleasure to work with," and notes his willingness to help with anything he can. For his part, Kenton declares, "The job is good. It's a challenge, but I like a challenge. I don't want to sit and do nothing."
In 1999, Best Buddies created e-Buddies as a vehicle for online friendships. The response to the online application question "Do you have an intellectual disability?" determines how the matches are made. According to e-Buddies director Lisa Derx, Best Buddies screens applicants through references, Social Security numbers, sex offender registries, and police records of the state in which they reside. Pairing in separate states and the use of a double-blind email system offer further protection for possibly vulnerable Buddy applicants. Matches are based on gender, age, and at least two common interests. Since volunteers include more females than males, the organization occasionally asks participants if they would mind a cross- gender match.
Denise LaFlamme of New Haven, Connecticut, 36, rides in an electric wheelchair and suffers from a speech impediment due to cerebral palsy. "I don't have many friends," she confides. But she knows computers. She not only looks forward to starting a job setting up a system for a local organization changing from paper to computer, but to her frequent email sessions with e-Buddy Margaret Nee, 38, of Miami, Florida.
The two share an interest in animals (Denise has a cat and Margaret has three dogs and two cats) and in the everyday things women talk about--food, cooking, movies, and catastrophes such as accidentally leaving the freezer door ajar and defrosting the contents. Margaret, who works full time as vice president of development for a local real estate concern and serves on the board of Pet Rescue, finds that e-Buddying allows her to volunteer in a way that fits her time constraints. It has also made her more humble, more grateful for the healthy and able body she once took for granted.
"You share jokes and troubles and lighten your burden and theirs," says Margaret of her e-Buddy relationship. "This has added some real happiness to my day and a new friendship to my life. You can never have too many friends." Denise concurs. "She takes time to listen to me," she says of Margaret. "I love her so much."
Through all its programs, Best Buddies currently serves fifty thousand members worldwide. This puts the organization well on the way toward its goal of having offices in all fifty states, programs in fifty countries, and half a million participants by 2010.
The core of the organization's programs will remain the one-to-one relationship. As Joe Columbus reflects, "I would be friends with Mike Wheeler now with or without Best Buddies. He's a true friend." Michael responds, "He's a real neat guy--real cool. I know quite a few people who would like a buddy like Joe."n
Maria Shriver's What's Wrong With Timmy? (Little Brown & Co., 2001) reminds children--and adults who have forgotten--that "God makes us all different and special." Proceeds benefit Best Buddies.
Best Buddies National Headquarters:
100 SE Second Street # 1990
Miami, Florida 33131
401 Ninth Street, NW, Suite 750
Washington, D.C. 20004
Susan J. Alexis is a freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is the author of Healing the World One by One: Reflections on Third World Encounters.