Best Buddies International is changing lives throughout the world

BOSTON – They’re college students, high school students, kids in middle school, ordinary citizens and coworkers; and their service work is changing lives throughout the world.Melissa Demir with Buddy Director Jennifer LeBlanc They’re members of Best Buddies International, a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the lives of people with intellectual disabilities through one-to-one friendships and integrated employment.

Best Buddies has more than 1,400 chapters throughout the U.S. and 50 other countries. Their volunteers provide an equivalent of $70 million in service each year and touch the lives of more than 350,000 individuals living with intellectual disabilities.

Best Buddies International was founded by Anthony Kennedy Shriver in 1989. The organization stemmed from an idea Shriver had while he was studying at Georgetown University. He realized the need for relationships between people with and without intellectual disabilities and knew college students could make a difference. Shriver encouraged his peers to initiate these friendships while they were in school. It wasn’t long before his idea became an official 501(c) (3) entity and “Best Buddies Colleges” was born.

There are presently more than 430 college chapters active throughout the world. In Massachusetts alone, 25 colleges and universities participate. Among them are: Suffolk University, Boston College, Emerson College, Tufts University and University of Massachusetts Amherst.  Programs at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are under development.

The chapter at Suffolk University has grown significantly since its inception in 2006. The club is now 80 members large and run by nine officers. Melissa Demir, president of Best Buddies Suffolk University, has been a mentor to me since I joined the club in the fall of 2007. She teaches students how little effort it takes to drastically improve someone else’s life and accomplishes this through the great character she possesses and the leadership skills embedded in her at the annual Best Buddies Leadership Conference in Indiana.

“Susan, a 61-year-old woman with a cognitive disability who possesses an unmatched vivacity for life, has been my ‘Best Buddy’ since my freshman year of college,” said Demir. “As a result of our relationship, I have gained a deeper understanding of my self and my aspirations. There are times in which I act as a mentor to Susan, showing her how to act in social situations, and providing her with the best ways to placate her anxiety about being ‘different’. Yet at the same time, and what I truly think is the most important aspect of this organization, is the fact that she is also teaching me some extremely valuable lessons. I have learned what it means to be empathetic and how to be a better listener. Most importantly, she helped me realize that authenticity is the most prized characteristic one can possess, she has shown me that it is OK to be yourself…nothing more, and nothing less.”

I joined Best Buddies at Suffolk during my first semester with intentions to serve the community while making new friends. Since then I’ve grown to love the organization and can’t imagine the day when it won’t be a part of my life. I’m also inspired by the work that my fellow members contribute. Between September and May each year we host approximately 20 events; they range from friendship dances and holiday dinner parties to community service, city-wide scavenger hunts and one-on-one “hang out” sessions with our buddies.

As membership coordinator for the club, it is my job to match the volunteers with “buddies” based on shared interests. Members are required to interact with their buddies at least twice a month and contact them via telephone or mail each week. “My friendship with Robert has forever impacted my life and thanks to him I have a new outlook,” said Michael Wenning, public relations officer for the chapter at Suffolk.

Are there volunteer opportunities outside of college?:

“Best Buddies Citizens” was later launched to expand friendships throughout communities and between 1994-98 “Best Buddies High Schools,” “Best Buddies Middle Schools” and “Best Buddies Jobs” were created. Best Buddies Jobs aims to place intellectually disabled people in jobs of their choosing and allows them to work alongside other employees and pay taxes as any citizen would. Many of the disabled participants in Massachusetts work in the food service industry for Boston hospitals like Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Although Best Buddies has made tremendous strides toward integrating their “buddies” with mainstream society, there are still several regions throughout the world without any similar programs. Best Buddies International hopes to create even more registered programs by 2010 providing more than 500,000 people across 50 countries with its services.

Shriver is the son of Eunice Mary Kennedy, founder of the Special Olympics and Robert Sargent Shriver Jr., best known for his vice presidential nomination on the Democratic ticket in ’72.

Learn more about Best Buddies International and how to get involved.

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