There’s nothing better than a Best Buddy
In the fall of 1991, Professor of Special Education E. Paula Crowley and student leader Amy Haste Given ’92 launched the first university chapter of Best Buddies in Illinois. The Illinois State University Chapter of Best Buddies has a long history of awards and has twice been recognized as an Outstanding Chapter at the International level.
Crowley considers herself fortunate to have found Given, who was integral to getting the organization off of the ground. In the 23 years since, Crowley has collaborated with students and the Bloomington-Normal community to help grow and improve the organization each year.
Best Buddies is an international nonprofit organization built upon the generosity of thousands of volunteers around the globe who are dedicated to enriching the lives of individuals with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. The organization “pairs” volunteers with members of the community who have intellectual disabilities. The two then grow a meaningful and mutually beneficial friendship and participate in monthly socials with the entire Best Buddies community.
“I knew Best Buddies would be a wonderful fit for our students and also with our community,” Crowley said. “So many connections made the match seem obvious to me. Our chapter began with 25 matches and every year we have more students interested in the organization than we can accept.”
In recent years, Best Buddies has consistently signed-up more than 100 college and associate buddy members and up to 100 individuals with special needs from the community. Part of the membership requirement in Best Buddies is attendance at the monthly meetings and socials. To accommodate these events, the organization reserves some of the University’s largest venues such as the Bowling and Billiards Center and rooms within the Bone Student Center.
The career goals among the students who join the organization run the gamut. For example, Best Buddies co-directors have two different majors. Joseph Powers is a biological sciences major, while Allyssa Massarelli is an education major.
“Through Best Buddies, I have learned that I have passion for working with individuals with special needs,” Powers said. “This organization has allowed me to incorporate this passion into my professional goals of becoming a dentist.”
The ability for a student enrolled in a major unrelated to special education to play such an important role in Best Buddies is a testament not only to the organization’s accessibility but also to its humanity.
“There’s something very genuine about Best Buddies,” Crowley said. “Our students extend themselves and befriend someone with a different life experience.
“There is a kind of dignity involved in Best Buddies in that you’re not expected to be helping anybody. You’re not in any kind of role other than that of two people participating in a voluntary friendship where they get to know each other and their community.”
There is no shortage of social settings and activities where buddies spend time with each other each week. They may talk on the phone, hang out at the their buddy’s apartment, attend basketball games, go bowling together, share in meals, take shopping trips, watch films, collaborate during the organization’s annual fundraisers, and get involved in service projects to better the community.
This past fall, one of the group get-togethers that the members scheduled was at Uptown Normal’s Firehouse restaurant for pizza and conversation.
Reflecting upon the event, Crowley considers what the other restaurant-goers might have been thinking that day when they saw Illinois State students engaged with their community buddies.
“There are some things about these exchanges that most observers would typically never see,” said Crowley. “That day they saw Illinois State students and their community buddies having so much fun talking and sharing life experiences. And it’s genuine. It’s real.”
Like Crowley, student members recognize that not everybody understands that individuals with intellectual disabilities have full lives much like any other person.
“Society often places a stigma on individuals with disabilities, making them out to be unhappy,” said Powers. “This is anything but true. Some of our community buddies are active in the community and have friends through their own involvements. The community members of our program live lives just like my own.”
Through the relationships with their buddies, Crowley says students gain a great appreciation for the exposure to the lifestyles of people with special needs. This experience helps students to understand what they take for granted in their own lives, and they often learn to become better individuals, as well.
“Best Buddies gives me a whole new perspective on life,” said Jessica McAdam, a junior communications major. “My buddy’s name is Mekah, and she has taught me how to be more patient, more appreciative of things, more positive, and more motivated. I am a friend to her, and it makes me happy knowing that I have made her happy.”
Crowley says that the impact these students have on the lives of individuals with special needs also cannot be overstated. And these individuals recognize the value of Best Buddies, too. Crowley says that some community members have continued to be involved since the early 1990s.
“Many would really miss the Best Buddies if they were no longer involved,” said Crowley.
Crowley continues to be encouraged by the benefits derived by members from their involvement in Best Buddies. And the goal is for carryover into every aspect of their lives.
“I believe that beyond Best Buddies, our students and our community buddies gain an increased sense of being a part of the community and that that they have an increased sense of their own integrity as human beings with a part to play in the world,” said Crowley.
For those interested in committing time to the Best Buddies chapter at the University and throughout Illinois, please visit the RSO’s Facebook page and the Best Buddies Illinois website. And check out the International not-for-profit’s interview of Illinois State’s own Joseph Powers on page seven of the latest issue of their biannual magazine, ByLine.