There is no shortage of volunteer organizations and nonprofits to support, but finding the diamonds in the rough can be tricky. However, some organizations simply stand out from the rest, and Best Buddies is one of them.
Best Buddies is a global nonprofit organization that helps promote one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). The organization, which has local chapters in all 50 states as well as offices in 50 countries worldwide, works to integrate individuals with IDD into mainstream society through personal and professional relationships.
“The idea is that in one way or another we’ve all been affected by someone who has a disability, whether we’ve grown up around it or [not],” says Jenna Cox, the Development Director for Best Buddies Tennessee. “We can all relate to the universal emotion of loneliness. Best Buddies comes in and breaks those social barriers that keep people from interacting.”
Officially founded in 1989 by Anthony K. Shriver, Best Buddies is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Shriver began Best Buddies in 1987 while he was a student at Georgetown University. Two years later, he incorporated Best Buddies as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and expanded it to 33 college chapters. In 1992, Best Buddies of America became Best Buddies International with the founding of the first non-domestic chapter located in Greece. The organization has continued to expand both domestically and internationally since then, and its eight programs now impact nearly 800,000 individuals both with and without IDD.
Unlike some other volunteer organizations, kids are encouraged to get involved in Best Buddies as early as middle school. In fact, Best Buddies focuses on involving students through its three flagship programs in middle school, high school and college. The scholastic programs promote one-on-one relationships between volunteers and fellow IDD students or adults. (The small-but-growing “Citizens” program helps pair adult buddies, for those who are interested.) There are more 1,700 school chapters worldwide, so check the website to find one in your area.
Cox says that Best Buddies starts in middle school because “it’s that awkward stage of life where you’re starting to see more bullying, more people picking on each other, people more conscious of differences … we’re trying to break down those social barriers before they ever start.”
Both student and adult buddies must commit to the program for one full year (it’s a full academic year for students). Volunteers touch base with their buddies at least once a week and hang out at least twice a month. The school clubs also host a group activity at least once a month. To encourage true one-to-one friendships, Best Buddies works hard to pair students in the same grade and of similar interests.
“Often we’re seeing that our peer buddies without IDD are getting even more out of it than our buddies, just because you see the scales that are dropped from their eyes,” says Cox. “The peer buddies think This person is amazing — I can’t believe that I didn’t want to be this person’s friend, or that I was scared because I didn’t know what disabilities meant.”
To become a peer buddy, Cox says that volunteers can either attend their school club’s informational meetings in the fall or call or email their local office if they’re out of school. If you want to get involved in Best Buddies but don’t have the time to commit to a one-to-one friendship, the organization hosts plenty of fundraising events throughout the year. You can sign up online to volunteer in various positions, or you can find your local chapter and reach out directly to the officers. If there isn’t a program in your area, donating to Best Buddies is also a great option since 81 percent of all revenue goes directly to programs.
Looking forward, in 2011 Best Buddies created an ambitious 2020 Initiative, which calls for establishing offices in 100 countries worldwide and impacting 3 million people with and without IDD by the end of that year. The initiative also includes plans to train 4,000 Buddy Ambassadors, develop 1,000 jobs for people with IDD around the world, and increase the number of school-based chapters to 2,500.
“We want to put ourselves out of business,” says Cox. “The idea is that we’re all humans and we all deserve the same quality of life … everybody deserves a friend.”
Learn more about Best Buddies at bestbuddies.org.