The handicapped's best buddy.
At 21, Kathy Parker has the world in her pocket. Like any ambitious young woman her age, she's brimming with plans and projects and grand ideas. She bubbles with enthusiasm, recounting her crowded social calender, her full-time job, and her volunteer work for a favorite non-profit organization.
Describe Kathy Parker and a long string of adjectives come to mind. Considerate. Vivacious. Self-confident. Extraordinarily gentle.
The fact that she is mentally handicapped hardly seems worth mentioning.
But too few people in our society take the time--or have the opportunity--to build a friendship with someone like Kathy, says Anthony K. Shriver, 25-year-old president of the Washington-based Best Buddies of America. And that missed friendship is society's loss: "When someone like that touches your life, it's something you can never forget," he says. "Their innocence reminds you of the way you used to be.
"And the way you can be again."
Today, Shriver, son of Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, brother of newscaster Maria Shriver and brother-in-law of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is making his own niche in the world by initiating those rare but rewarding relationships. His nonprofit organization, Best Buddies, matches college students with mentally handicapped "buddies." The new friends go to the movies and restaurants, plan pizza parties and camping trips, and attend football and baseball games.
"They do," Shriver says, "exactly what you would do with any pal."
And more of these friendships are flourishing. In only two years, the organization has grown to include 67 colleges and universities in 22 states and the District of Columbia. Nationwide, more than 1,100 college students are matched with a similar number of buddies, with new matches and new chapters added each month.
By this time next year, Shriver predicts that Best Buddies chapters will operate at more than 100 college campuses--an astonishing number considering the age of the organization. It was just four years ago that Shriver, then a senior at Georgetown University, stood up in history class and announced he was starting a new student volunteer organization: "Anyone else interested?"
Maybe this young man, blessed with that square Kennedy jaw and model-handsome looks, also inherited his family's Midas touch. Or maybe--and more probably--Shriver grew up learning firsthand what makes a good volunteer organization tick. His father served as the first director of the Peace Corps; his mother started the Special Olympics for handicapped athletes.
When it came time for Shriver to get serious about his life--and he'll admit it took four years of fairly unserious pursuits at Georgetown to figure things out--volunteerism seemed a natural choice.
Of course, not many of us have the luxury of working full-time as a non-paid volunteer. But people like Carol and Larry VanTiem, of Boulder Creek, Calif., are thankful that Shriver does. Their son, Tony, 16, has become an active participant in the Best Buddies program, paired for the past two years with Elizabeth Brandwein, now a senior at the University of California-Santa Cruz.
"We didn't understand the program at first," admits Carol VanTiem. "We thought it was strange to have a girl paired with a boy. I guess with a learning-handicapped kid you're a little protective. But then we met Elizabeth at a soccer game and we were very impressed."
Since then, Elizabeth and Tony have met innumerable times for lunch, shared laughs over movies, and tested their culinary talents by serving brownies, cookies, and complete meals. The two talk at least once a week on the phone.
The VanTiems have reciprocated by inviting Elizabeth to their home, even including her when the family brought along their horses and went camping on the beach.
"These college students really care," says Carol VanTiem. "And they don't have barriers that some others do. They'll hug him, kiss him. They're friends. The term 'Best Buddy' is chosen very well."
Although many of the buddies paired with college students are in the same peer group, others are older--but just as needy of friendship. At New York University in Manhattan, Ronald Ford, 37, eagerly awaits visits with college buddy Anna Delerski. "Anna has been a good friend," says Ford. "She has helped me do things I couldn't do before." Like bowling. Ford still talks about the bowling party sponsored by the NYU Best Buddies--and rightfully so, since he scored a strike.
Simple everyday activities that most of us take for granted become important milestones in a handicapped person's life. "Maybe they've never ridden a bus," says Shriver. "Never been out of state. Never used a pay phone."
"It's been very good for our clients," says Susanne Freed, residential supervisor for The Young Adult Institute, where Ford lives in a group home. At first, she says, she was worried that college students wouldn't be responsible, that they would soon tire of their new relationships and skip a buddy date for a campus party.
"But the majority of the kids are wonderful," Freed says. And any clients short-changed by a too-busy buddy are taken under the wing of the chapter president, Lori Abrams, dubbed "King Buddy."
Abrams says her chapter requires members to visit their buddies at least once every two weeks. Her own buddy, a quiet woman "about 40," likes going for walks, shopping for dolls, and listening to music. "What's she like?" Abrams pauses in her description. "Well, how do I describe my sister? Because she is my sister."
Although the benefits to buddies are perhaps more easily measured, Shriver says he's found college students "actually get twice as much out of the programs." For example, Christine Buckley, president of the Best Buddies chapter at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says she's rethought her career plans as a result of her involvement. Yes, she still plans to go to law school next year, but now, instead of concentrating on corporate or patent law, Buckley hopes to find an area of law that is more people-oriented. Maybe, she says, she'll find a way to advance the rights of handicapped persons.
And she knows her own view of mental retardation has changed dramatically. "People don't realize how capable people with mental retardation are," Buckley says. "I've seen a lot of college students really surprised. Most of the people we are paired with are 18 to 26 years old. Most have graduated from high school, many hold part-time jobs, some even live in their own apartments."
Her buddy, John, works two jobs as a janitor and dishwasher, shares an apartment with another mentally handicapped man, and handles his own grocery shopping and cooking.
"Everybody comes in wanting to be matched with a smiling, cute little kid with Down Syndrome," says Shriver. "But that's not the way most people with mental retardation are. Eighty-five percent look and act just like you and I act, but they couldn't read an algebra problem."
According to facts compiled by Best Buddies of America, 74 percent of the mentally disabled population is mildly retarded, with I.Q.'s ranging from 52 to 70. These people are not, Shriver says, eternal children. They grow into mentally handicapped adults with needs for adult friendship.
But what happens to these friendships when the college buddy graduates, heads off into the real world and perhaps an out-of-town job? Certainly the relationship changes; most buddies, in fact, get new matches. But each new match extends the mentally handicapped person's network of friends "in a positive way," says Shriver.
Kathy Parker, who participates in the University of California-Santa Cruz program, is a good example. Her first college buddy, Rachel, went to Israel to study Hebrew, but she still contacts Kathy by postcards and letters. Her second, Rebecca, probably will be moving on soon. Kathy confides that Rebecca is getting married to a young man named Todd, who has come to visit from out of state. "I even danced with him," she says proudly.
Keep in mind, too, that these friendships are not likely to be easily forgotten. Tony VanTiem's parents are confident that their son will be perfectly capable of flying cross-country to visit buddy Elizabeth at her new job in Boston next year. And Elizabeth is making plans to play tour guide and show Tony all the sights.
"We don't make friends just to lose them," says Carol VanTiem. "I'm sure we'll all be in touch."
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|Title Annotation:||Best Buddies of America support organization|
|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1991|
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