What brings Ciara, Cindy Crawford and Governor Schwarzenegger together? Best Buddies International, a non-profit organization that provides opportunities for personal relationships and integrated employment for people with intellectual disabilities that works with nearly every major university throughout California. But the non-profit is more than just star-studded galas and charity donations: Best Buddies focuses on breaking down the barrier of social seclusion that many people with intellectual disabilities endure daily by building lasting friendships with non-disabled peers, self-confidence and independence.
Founded by Anthony K. Shriver in 1989, the organization has expanded from one chapter to chapters across 35 countries. Best Buddies enriches the lives of people on junior high, high school and college campuses, as well as community members, corporations, and employers through its six signature programs. Jessica Wenzel, President of the Best Buddies chapter at UC Berkeley and former president of her high school chapter, explains, “The college campus programs pair all members with a buddy from a local group home for adults with intellectual disabilities. Once the buddy pairs are made, it is the college member’s responsibility to hang out with their buddy at least twice a month and call at least once a week. Also, we do a monthly get-together for all members, like a picnic or going karaokeing—which was definitely the most fun!”
However, no one involved with Best Buddies considers it a “responsibility.” “People think that I am doing Latisha such a favor because I hang out with her, etc. The fact of the matter is that she is probably doing me the bigger favor. She always listens to me and helps me relax when I am stressed out. And she can always make me laugh,” says Wenzel.
Another faction of Best Buddies arranges employment opportunities for those with developmental disabilities. This program allows buddies to work as equals in the community. Best Buddies Jobs provides ongoing training and guidance to help those with intellectual disabilities earn their own income and pay taxes, which helps foster confidence and self-sufficiency. Rachel Spooner works as a Best Buddies employment consultant who visits buddies on the job and makes sure that they are performing to the best of their abilities. She spends up to 30 hours a month helping those in the program successfully transition into their new working environment and understand the duties involved in their new job. Spooner also interacts with supervisors to ensure that participants are being treated fairly.
According to Amber Coffman, Jobs Supervisor of Best Buddies California, “The jobs program is able to target places where you wouldn’t expect to see someone with a disability. We’re pushing the corporate envelope and everyone is winning.”
Greg Shipman is one such “winner” who was able to excel through the employment opportunities and guidance arranged through Best Buddies Jobs. He is employed at UCLA’s Semel Institute and has been a part of Best Buddies Jobs since the founding in 1989. Shipman explains, “I appreciate that Best Buddies has assisted me in finding the job that most appropriately fits my needs.”
Currently, Best Buddies Jobs is making its mark in one of the most challenging industries in the U.S. — entertainment. International Creative Management, a talent and literary agency, and Paradigm, an entertainment talent agency, both employ through Best Buddies. Colby Pittard has been an employee of ICM for all 10 years of ICM’s participation with Best Buddies. Throughout Colby’s time at ICM, he has proven himself as a fervent employee and has been promoted from sorting fan mail to scanning contracts and account paperwork for IT. “Once Colby began working in IT, all he talked about was getting a Blackberry like the other IT professionals. On Colby’s 1000th batch of document scans, we provided him with a Blackberry. He did a victory lap around the office!” recounts Anne Altman, Colby’s supervisor.
Seana Smith, Head of Human Resources at Paradigm, encourages more companies across all industries to get involved. “Nothing could be better for people with intellectual disabilities than to work in productive and exciting environments. This will help increase their self-esteem, which
may have been lost during their challenging life.”
Best Buddies envisions a world where people with intellectual disabilities are no longer excluded from career opportunities. As Karen Abrams, Vice President of Human Resources at ICM explains, “Colby is a very important part of the team at ICM. He has become a part of the family.” As the program continues to thrive, this vision is soon becoming a reality.
By Kelli Calloway
How to Get Involved:• Talk to your own supervisor about hiring a buddy
• Join the chapter on your college campus or start a new one
• Join eBuddies.org to create online friendships
• Cycle, run, or walk in such philanthropic events as the Audi Best Buddies Challenge
• Visit Best Buddies.org to see how you can be a part of Best Buddies