Since 1989 Best Buddies has been on a mission to promote acceptance of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Founded on the campus of Georgetown University by Anthony Kennedy Shriver, Best Buddies is an international organization that has grown to more than 1,500 college, high school and middle school campuses across the country and beyond. We sat down with Maryland Deputy Director of Operations Tom Waite to get a look inside this beloved program.

Q: What is the goal of Best Buddies?

A: Our mission is to help create a world where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are so successfully integrated into our schools and workplaces that our services will not be necessary.

Q: How does it work?

A: Friendship is a powerful thing and Best Buddies is about friendship. We work with a school to open a chapter.  In each chapter we pair up students with intellectual and developmental disabilities with a typical peer.

Q: Most High School students are self-involved, is it hard to get them interested in participating?

A: Actually we’ve found the kids love it.  In every school we have more typical high school students wanting to participate than we have the ability to match up with our intellectually and developmentally disabled students.

Q: Can a few typical kids have the same Buddy?

A: The goal here is to create a one-to-one friendship. Those bonds are unique and feel special, so the buddy system is a one-to-one program.  But the other kids in the club help in many other important ways, organizing activities, fundraising.

Q: So if you are one of the lucky kids that are assigned a Buddy, what do you do together?

A: Buddies and their typical peers connect weekly. The connections can be as simple as saying hi in the hallway or sending a text message. These little interactions are very meaningful and help to build a solid relationship. Suddenly these kids know that they have a person they can talk to.

Q: High School can sometimes be a lonely time for anyone; it must be very challenging for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities?

A: I can’t tell you how many times I get calls from parents telling me how lonely their children are. Friendship is important for everyone, especially at that age. But the great thing about Best Buddies is that once it starts in a school as a small club it really expands out into the whole school community.

many students posing for a picture behind a cafeteria table

Q: It must be a really powerful experience for the students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

A: This program is all about acceptance and that is what we see year after year. Teachers and parents have told us time and time again about how not only do they see an increase in general confidence and happiness, they see the grades of students involved in the program improve.  (Students at Central Middle School in Edgewater (at right) get together regularly for Best Buddies activities.)

Q: What are some things the students do together?

A: In the High School Program, along with the weekly check-ins, Buddies meet with their typical peers once a month for a group activity. Sometimes they revolve around a theme or holiday. It might be a craft project or something related to the school at large. It depends on the school.  Each chapter is responsible for developing their own activities and the program really takes on the flavor of the individual school.  If football is really popular at the school, then the activity could revolve around an upcoming game.

Q: Your goals for your intellectual and developmentally disabled students are pretty clear.  What is your goal for the typical peers who get involved?

A: In many ways it is the same. We want people to feel like they have made a friend.  That we have broken down some of the barriers that society has put up.

Q: Any favorite moments?

A: Too many. But one that comes to mind is something I witnessed over the holidays.  The kids were working together making holiday cards. Everyone was happy and working away and when you looked out over the cafeteria there were no differences.  It was just a bunch of teenagers.

Q: What happens when the students with intellectual or developmental disabilities graduate?

A: Well aside from our school programs in middle and high schools and college, we have our Best Buddies Citizen program for adults. It fits the same model.  We pair up a typical adult with an adult who has an intellectual or developmental disability.  Many people with intellectual or developmental disabilities find it more difficult to maintain relationships when they leave school.  They are picked up by a van, go to work and return home the same way.  Their lives can be very isolated, so we really want to bring them out and into the community and our Citizen program does just that.

For more information or to start a Best Buddies program in your area, visit their  website.

Starting a Best Buddies Program in Your School

Best Buddies Program are thriving in over 1500 schools nationally. If you are interested in starting your own chapter in any Maryland school, download a PDF flyer with instructions for getting started.

SPOTLIGHT on Centennial High School

From Taryn Betz, a Best Buddy participant:

“Our first outing was on October 18th (Friday). We went to AMC at Columbia Mall (I got to meet Marco’s brother Cesar); we originally wanted to see Carrie, but it was rated R so we ended up seeing Captain Phillips instead. It wasn’t very good; Marco actually fell asleep halfway through. Afterwards, however, while we were waiting to be picked up, we had a nice talk. Marco explained to me that he hadn’t really had friends in middle school, and that he hadn’t talked to anyone like me before (referring to my constant questions probably) …

Finally, on Wednesday, October 27th, Marco came with me to my school’s Anime Club. Although this was our Halloween party, and non-members are usually not allowed (many times people will come just to eat our food), I was able to make a special arrangement for him. I felt that mingling with people who had similar interests to him would be good for Marco; he took particular interest to a Sonic game that one boy was playing on the computer, and I was surprised to see how many people already KNEW him. He was still a little shy, however, so we spent most of the time playing a multiplayer game on the computer. Neither of us had used it before, but Marco still kicked my butt. I was suspicious that he HAD used it before, but he kept insisting that he hadn’t. While he was beating me (and when I accidentally killed two of my players with my own grenade) was the first time I had seen him smile and laugh – this was extremely rewarding to me, knowing that I had brought joy into someone else’s life.”