Submitted by Karen Stallings
A group of caring students from the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC is giving this population opportunities to lead fuller lives through the gift of friendship.
Sponsored through Best Buddies International, Best Buddies Colleges pairs university students with people with developmental disabilities, and offers opportunities for meaningful lasting friendships to grow. The goal is to end social isolation and enhance lives; not only for people with developmental disabilities, but for the students without disabilities.
"My buddy is just like any other friend," says Kara Loth, a second year University of South Carolina Pharmacy Student and the President of the Best Buddies Chapter at the university. "That's the point of Best Buddies - adults with disabilities might be labeled as having a disability, but they are not their disabilities. They all are individuals just like you and me..." says Loth.
Each student Best Buddies volunteer commits to the program for the full academic year, but most students keep the same buddy throughout their college careers; and sometimes, beyond graduation.
When Kara joined the program three years ago, she was a sophomore; she and her buddy have been friends ever since. "You keep your buddy from year to year, unless your buddy decides not to stay in the program," she said. "It allows you to build a relationship with your buddy over time." During the year, student volunteers commit to:
- Weekly contact with their buddies by phone or email;
- One to one activities twice monthly, decided jointly by the buddy pairs, such as sporting events, movies or going out for dinner;
- Attendance at group chapter activites for volunteers and their buddies - which might include bowling, a theme party, or a picnic for new buddies who are just getting to know one another
The Arc of Midlands in Columbia SC is an advocacy group for the rights of citizens with special needs and the host site coordinator for Best Buddies at the University of South Carolina. They choose program participants, pairing Buddies based on similar interests, with no special training required.
"We do meet with everyone and go over different scenarios that buddies might face," Kara said. "For example, if you're out to dinner with your buddy and the waiter is asking you all the questions and not focusing on your buddy, we offer tips to make sure that your buddy interacts with the waiter too. Just little things like that make people more comfortable."
Students benefit just as much as their buddies, said Alisa Cooney Liggett, Associate Director of the University's Judicial Affairs Office and staff advisor for Best Buddies at the college. "They are giving back in a very personal and committed way, and through that, they are inculcating a lifestyle that says, "I give back," Liggett said. They're also learning to deal with people who are very different from them, in ways that are wonderful and challenging; and how to advocate for people who can't always advocate for themselves. They have the satisfaction of knowing they have genuinely increased the value of someone else's quality of life, and I think that's most rewarding. The University benefits too. I am a firm believer that a university is responsible for developing good citizens in addition to good scholars," Liggett said.
Sometimes those rewarding relationships are lasting. A former President of Best Buddies who had finished her degree invited her buddy of four years to pass out programs at her wedding. "Her buddy was an important part of the students' lives, so she wanted to honor their friendship by including her a special way," Liggett said. "And in her wedding photos, there's her buddy, just glowing!"
Karen Stallings, Community Liaison NC, is the Executive Director of the Association of Self-Advocates of North Carolina, and is a writer and an actress currently working on her autobiography.