Developmental Disabilities Leadership Forum: Leadership Perspectives in Developmental Disability: An on-line Journal for Consumers, Professionals, Family and Friends
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Volume 1 , Issue 3 Date: Spring, 2001 Topic: Community Membership

Best Buddies International
How Best Buddies’ programs contribute to changing perceptions of people with mental retardation and encourage inclusion in the community at large
by Kathleen M. Burns

Best Buddies International is a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of people with mental retardation by providing opportunities for one-to-one friendships and integrated employment. This mission is accomplished in Massachusetts through four programs – Best Buddies High Schools, Best Buddies Colleges, e-Buddies and Best Buddies Jobs.

At the high school level, all students enter through the same doors, but students in the general curriculum often have a drastically different high school experience than students in the special education curriculum. Best Buddies strives to bridge this gap and allow students with and without mental retardation to realize what they have in common, instead of focusing on differences. To accomplish this, students from the general curriculum are paired in one-to-one friendships with students in the special education curriculum. Through weekly interactions that might include eating lunch together, shopping at the mall, attending a sporting event or chatting in the hallway, the buddy pair develops a mutually enriching friendship. At the same time, their presence together in the school makes a lasting impression on all who witness the blossoming friendship between two people who might have not met otherwise.

College students are often isolated from the community at large while on their campuses. They spend time in the classroom, the cafeteria, their dorm room and the student center. Often, they don’t have much interaction with people outside of their college or university. Best Buddies Colleges pairs college students in one-to-one friendships with adults with mental retardation who live in the community near the college or university. They may live in a group home, independently or with their family. The one-to-one friendship created between the college student and the person with mental retardation is life-changing and enriching for each person. More importantly, when these new friends spend time on the college campus or in the community doing what friends do ~ shopping, eating, talking, attending athletic events, visiting museums ~ they are sending a powerful message to anyone who sees them. Some people have the misperception that a person with mental retardation cannot be independent, work in the community, enrich another person’s life through friendship or feel the same emotions as everyone else. Hopefully, when these people see college students and their buddies in the community, they have a new appreciation and understanding of people with mental retardation.

Leadership opportunities are often rare for people with mental retardation. Many of their daily interactions are with family, staff and people they live with. Best Buddies goal of creating a mutually enriching experience in our programs extends to leadership roles as well. Each high school or college that participates in Best Buddies is considered a chapter. Each chapter is led by a student leader and that student leader is encouraged to have a counterpart called a Buddy Director, who is a person with mental retardation that assists with all the planning involved in a Best Buddies chapter – planning group outings and fundraisers, attending meetings and getting feedback from chapter members.

The Internet and e-mail have changed our lives dramatically! Keeping in touch with others is easier via e-mail, information is readily available at the click of a mouse on the Internet and job searches can be done on-line, just to name a few of the advantages technology has brought into our lives. For many people with mental retardation, however, knowledge of computers and technology is still out of reach. E-Buddies, Best Buddies newest friendship program, attempts to bridge the technology divide by creating friendships between people with and without mental retardation through e-mail. Volunteers and people with mental retardation sign-up by completing the online application available at Best Buddies conducts extensive background checks and then pairs people in friendships based on interests and age. The advantages of this program extend far beyond the simple act of e-mailing and developing a friendship this way. Best Buddies provides Internet access for those who have a computer, but do not have access to the Internet, and trains users how to send e-mail and get online. Computer skills are essential in this job market and e-Buddies provides a convenient and fun way for a person with mental retardation to use the computer and at the same time, increase his or her skill set.

At the Best Buddies Leadership Conference last summer, 200 students were sitting in an auditorium hearing a presentation about e-Buddies. Kendra, a woman with mental retardation, was explaining how it has changed her life. A little over one year ago, Kendra had never used the computer in her home. After a Best Buddies staff member showed her how to use e-mail, she signed up for e-Buddies and began e-mailing her new buddy on a weekly basis. After a year of corresponding with her new friend, Kendra has since added more than 40 friends and family to her address book and she e-mails daily. More importantly, she has gained confidence in her ability, increased her self-esteem and developed a valuable new skill – using the computer! She now tutors elementary school children how to use e-mail. During Kendra’s presentation, she demonstrated how she gets online and e-mails. When the person she e-mailed responded immediately and the students in the auditorium saw Kendra’s face light up, a lasting impression was created on each of those students.

A job provides us with and contributes to many things including, but not limited to, a salary, benefits, independence, confidence, self-esteem, a sense of purpose. Best Buddies Jobs is committed to working with people with mental retardation to find a job that is meaningful. Instead of focusing on fast food, janitorial and food service positions, Best Buddies works with each person to determine what is the best job based on his or her interests and abilities. We firmly believe that a person with mental retardation wants the same fulfillment out of a job that the rest of us want. One woman we worked with is now happily employed at a law firm downtown. Since starting her job in October of 1999, she has been promoted, received a raise and gets high marks on her employee evaluations. She is part of a team that treats her as the co-worker she is. She contributes to the organization in valuable, meaningful ways and adds diversity to the workforce.

All of us at Best Buddies look forward to the day when people with and without mental retardation will live and work together. We hope to see friendships form naturally in middle schools, high schools, and among community members. We envision employers not looking at a person’s disability, but instead focusing on what that person can bring to the organization because of the talents that he or she posseses. Until then, we will continue to help create friendships, encourage community involvement and work to find integrated employment opportunities.

The Shriver Center

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