Everybody needs a friend (or two, or three). As a young adult with a disability, it can sometimes be difficult to make these special connections. Eastern Michigan University’s Best Buddies program aims to help build those much-needed, meaningful relationships.
EMU Best Buddies is part of a large nonprofit organization of the same name which was founded in 1989 by Anthony K. Shriver, who was a college student at the time. EMU’s chapter has been active since 1996.
At the beginning of the school year, the program pairs a college student volunteer with a person in the community who has a disability, and the two new friends bond between regular hangouts, weekly communication and events put on by the Best Buddies program.
Involvement in the program takes a lot of heart, but the volunteers are passionate in maintaining strong relationships with their respective buddies.
EMU students Sarah Mueller and Megan Hoorn share a personal reason for their passion—both women have sisters with Down syndrome.
“I knew about this program before I came to college and sought it out,” Mueller, the activities coordinator for Best Buddies, said.
“I wanted to be a part of it just because I know how much my sister desires to have friends and be a part of something like this, and so I wanted to make sure that I was able to do that for others as well.”
The friendships built between the college volunteer and their buddy have the ability to last many years, with stories of EMU volunteers staying connected even after the volunteer graduates. These special relationships are often symbiotic, with both sides of the
friendship reaping benefits.
“It’s great because you get to learn about people with a disability,” Buddy Director James Kleimola said. “You should not feel sorry for us; that’s how I look at it. We’re unique in a very special way. We learn differently, but we have challenges and we can overcome those challenges.”
Hoorn, who is the college buddy director, said it’s really the same as any other friendship.
“I benefit from my friendships the same way that James would benefit from a friendship that he makes through our program,” she said. “It’s just some of the buddies don’t always have the same opportunities to make those friendships.”
One of the goals of Best Buddies is to promote a movement toward social inclusion, which in essence is the idea that people with disabilities are just like anyone else and want to be included without pity or restrictions. In fact, according to the vision statement on bestbuddies.org, the organization actually wants to put itself “out of business” by eliminating the need for a special program to integrate people with disabilities into society.
EMU student and Best Buddies treasurer Amanda Piechotte said the goal is essentially to “not have it be such a big deal that we’re including people, just have it be an everyday thing.”
Buddy volunteer and EMU student Kylie Fagan said, “A lot of people exclude people who have disabilities and I don’t think people realize that people with disabilities are just like us.”
EMU Best Buddies hosts a number of events to help keep college volunteers and their buddies connected. These events include bowling, basketball games and an upcoming Friendship Walk which will fundraise for the program as well as raise awareness of disabilities. The program is also holding their 16th annual ball in the Student Center Ballroom March 16, which will be open to the entire EMU community. According to Mueller, the event is a great way for the rest of the campus to get an idea of what Best Buddies is all about.
“I think the most powerful experience from the ball last year for me was, I live in Downing [Hall] and I got back after the ball and there was somebody there and he walked up to me and he was like ‘What was that event even for?’ And that was it,” Hoorn said. “He did not realize that there was a difference. He didn’t realize that there were people with disabilities [and] people without disabilities. He didn’t know what the program was. He just showed up and had a good time.”
In addition, EMU Best Buddies has arranged with the Alternative Spring Break program to form a team of their own, who will be heading to Chicago the first week of March to work on social issues like poverty and food security. Hoorn and Mueller will act as site leaders and the trip will include four college volunteers, four buddies and the head of EMU’s Department of Special Education Phil Smith.
“It’s just a really great opportunity for us to show social inclusion at its finest,” Mueller said. “As well as showing people that people with disabilities aren’t always needing to be the receivers of service, that they can, too, be the giver of service.”
To learn more about Best Buddies, check out the EMU Facebook page at www.facebook.com/EMUBB, or www.bestbuddies.org.
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