Making Best Buddies

Nicole Sonnier
Best Buddies

After writing in my last post about Best Buddies, I asked Nicole Sonnier, Texas state director, to tell us more about this wonderful organization.

What is the purpose of Best Buddies?

Our mission is to provide long-lasting relationships between people who have intellectual disabilities and those who do not.

How did Best Buddies get started?

The organization was started by Anthony Kennedy Shriver, son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics. The Kennedys, of course, have a long history of working with people who have intellectual disabilities. Anthony grew up being very involved in Special Olympics and he observed the special friendships that occurred during the games. He thought about the impact of year-round friendships and how they would make a difference in the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

When he was a student in college at Georgetown he got a bunch of his friends together and they went and visited institutions. He told his friends he was sure they had a lot in common with the residents of those institutions. They took the residents out to movies and baseball games. They made actual true friendships. A lot of those friendships are still in existence today. After college, Anthony went nationwide to other colleges and high schools and started Best Buddies chapters and today, there are more than 1500 Best Buddy chapters across the United States and we’ve expanded to 18 countries.

How does Best Buddies work?

The Buddies are the students who have the intellectual disabilities. Typical students are called Peer Buddies. We match them according to their interests. We have a match party every year at the beginning of the school year. There are officers for that chapter and they talk about what the chapter is going to do as a group and they talk about what the requirements are for members. They must have an activity together one- to-one at least once a week – that can be sitting together at lunch or going to the movies and they have to spend time with their Buddy even outside the school. We want it to be something that’s long-term.

Can you talk about inclusion and how important that is to the Best Buddies mission?

Our mission is of course inclusion. We have found that in so many schools now we actually see the kids in the special ed classes in a separate wing. The special ed kids come in through a separate door and the other kids never see them. And so now, because of Best Buddies, those kids are no longer kept isolated. They are actually out in the commons area and they are mingling with their Peer Buddies in the lunchroom and at school dances. It’s really been great for the typical students to see the abilities of the students that are special ed students. And it’s great for the special ed students so they can have friendships with people other than their caregivers and parents and teachers.

The ultimate goal of Best Buddies is total inclusion – social inclusion and educational inclusion. To expose the public to individuals, children and adults, to expose them to the world so people can stop seeing them as individuals with disabilities and see them as people who have a lot to contribute.

Out of this kind of inclusion, we’re hoping many of our students will become long-term advocates. When those students grow up, they might grow up to form a company that hires people with intellectual disabilities.

The Kennedy legacy

When most people think about the Kennedy dynasty, they think of politics and power and wealth. How could you think otherwise when three of the Kennedy brothers became U.S. senators and one became president?  One might also think of tragedy and heartbreak – with the assassinations of John and Robert and the deaths of Joe Jr. on the World War II battlefield and Kathleen in a plane crash.

Of course, when I think of the Kennedy legacy, I think of all these things. But I also reflect on all the family has done to advance the standing of people with intellectual disabilities. As is so often the case among people who take up causes, the Kennedys had personal experience with disabilities. John’s oldest sister Rosemary had a disability of some kind – the family always said it was an intellectual limitation. There is some debate about that diagnosis; nevertheless, Rosemary was the impetus for the family’s activism in the field of disabilities.

The Kennedys as activists

Rosemary’s younger sister Eunice prevailed upon John, when he became president, to establish the first President’s Committee on Mental Retardation. During his administration, he was the first president in history to welcome a person with an intellectual disability into the White House.

Later, Eunice and her husband Sargent Shriver founded the Special Olympics, providing athletic competitions worldwide for people with intellectual disabilities. Today, millions of athletes participate in sporting events in 170 countries.

The Shrivers’ son Anthony Kennedy Shriver built on their legacy by founding and building Best Buddies, an organization dedicated to creating one-to-one relationships and employment opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. It is a volunteer organization, pairing college and high school students and adults with peers.

Best Buddies recognizes that people with intellectual disabilities are often excluded from society. By creating meaningful friendships, Best Buddies seeks to change public perceptions and to help people with intellectual disabilities live richer, more meaningful lives.

My dad was a Best Buddy

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, decades ago, long before the founding of Best Buddies, my dad filled a similar role for his younger brother. He tried to include his disabled brother in neighborhood baseball games and he protected him from tormenters. Later in life, I became my uncle’s Best Buddy, taking him out for hamburgers and for rides in the park.

As I’ve learned in writing about my uncle, people with intellectual disabilities want the same things as everyone else – love, belonging, and a sense of purpose. I’m grateful there are organizations like the ones the Kennedys founded to help people with special needs find a place in this world.