Way back in 1968, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, American philanthropist and member of the Kennedy family, founded the Special Olympics. Seeing how unjustly and unfairly people with disabilities were treated, she decided to take action by creating a space where they could safely participate in athletics by playing Olympic-type sports.
The creation of the Special Olympics eventually led to the creation of Best Buddies, an organization that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).
Eastern has its very own chapter of Best Buddies, providing Eastern students with the opportunity to create long-lasting friendships with and without IDD in the Charleston area.
Jennifer Stringfellow, PhD, is the organization’s adviser and a faculty member in the special education department here at Eastern. She explained that Best Buddies came along because people wanted a way to continue developing those relationships that people created while working together on the Special Olympics.
The organization communicates with community agencies in the area that specifically work with individuals with disabilities and helps them build relationships with Eastern students. Best Buddies does this by pairing up Eastern students with individuals with disabilities, making them what the organization calls “buddies.’
The organization achieves its purpose through a variety of events, starting with a party inviting all members of the Charleston community.
“In the past, when we’ve been able to do it, we’ve had a party at the beginning of the year, in the fall,” Stringfellow said. “We’ll invite people from all around the area to come, and our students go. People just hang around and talk to each other and get to know each other and see if there’s a good match.”
If two people seem like a good match, the organization will pair them up. The expectation then becomes for the student and the individual with a disability to spend time together at least twice a month. They get to decide what they would like to do, so they can go to the movies, go to the park, or anything they find fun.
“All this is so you really truly get to know somebody,” Stringfellow said. “That’s really the purpose of Best Buddies. That you get to know someone really well.”
Though a lot of Best Buddies’ events and activities are done as partners or in small groups, they also host monthly parties to get everybody together. They would reserve a large space on campus, typically Andrews Hall’s basement, and watch movies, do arts and crafts, or do other activities together.
The purpose of all these events is to get people interacting with one another, which is both beneficial to the students and the individuals with disabilities.
“Part of that is to become comfortable with individuals with significant disabilities. Sometimes that’s difficult for people, because it’s just new and they’re not used to it,” Stringfellow said. “We also try to engage these individuals, get them into a different atmosphere, and get them with young people. So much of their life is spent with either medical professionals or staff at their group homes.”
COVID has affected a lot of the organizations on campus, and that includes Best Buddies. In order to keep the community safe, the organization decided it was best to remain inactive until the pandemic ends.
Especially considering that Best Buddies works with people who may be immunocompromised, the organization thought it would be best to take a pause on the events they regularly do until they can safely meet in person again.
Despite the struggles that the organization has faced this year, its members still find ways to continue building relationships with their buddies.
One way they are doing so is by putting together packages for their buddies and safely delivering it to the group homes where they reside.
“They would go to the dollar store and get decks of cards, some more adult-type coloring books, posters, construction paper,” Stringfellow said. “They put it together then they’ll go to the door of the group home, knock on the door, and then go away. They try to have enough for everybody in the group home or say that it is for a specific person.”
Also, this month, the organization has been involved in a big fundraiser for the Special Olympics called the Polar Plunge. The Polar Plunge is an event in which people run into a freezing cold body of water and raise money for charitable organizations.
Eastern has held its own Polar Plunge in the past as an in-person event, but because of COVID, that of course had to change. The 2021 Polar Plunge is being held virtually this year, helping to keep participants safe and allowing them to get creative with how they plunge.
Though Best Buddies is on hiatus now, they are ready to come back stronger than ever when the time comes. The organization is very passionate about what they do, and they hope to continue helping the community.
“It’s really about being an example for acceptance and being an example for good in the world,” Stringfellow said. “Everyone is included. Everyone is, first and foremost, a human being with wants and needs. Best Buddies is trying to fulfill that.”
Kyara Morales-Rodriguez can be reached at 581-2812 or at [email protected]