In Spring 2013, Georgia Tech Best Buddies was founded by Tech students Marnie Williams, Gina Holden, Ben Murray and Chris Hoag.
Though not an officially chartered chapter of Best Buddies International, the small group of students that make up this club are passionate about creating one-on-one friendships with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).
Elected president of the club this past Spring semester, Colleen Chen, fourth-year MSE, didn’t start working with people with disabilities until college.
“It really wasn’t something that I did or really knew about in high school, and honestly my life has been changed from working with some of these people,” Chen said.
Georgia Tech’s Best Buddies club pairs intellectually disabled people aged 18 to 25 with Tech students.
“A lot of our buddies come from family friends and siblings of Tech students or neighbors,” Chen said.
The buddies are all somewhere on the wide spectrum of IDD.
“We have a guy who has cerebral palsy, and he’s completely nonverbal. So he speaks a lot with emotion. That’s sometimes hard because he only uses motion, like when he high-fives you he’ll knock you to the ground, it’s really funny,” said Chen. “I’ll talk specifically about one buddy — her name is Kristina Brewster, she is very high functioning, she has Down syndrome and she’s super talkative and sassy.”
Chen went on to describe another one of the buddies. Though not very talkative, “he’ll express himself in different ways and if you get him talking about the right thing, then he’ll talk. So it just kind of depends, person to person. They’re all different and exciting.”
For this semester, the club currently has six buddies. Each of them will be paired with one Tech student. The club is comprised of approximately 25 members, and those not directly paired with a buddy are still able to participate in the meetings, which occur about three times a month.
“Everyone is able to come, they’re all open to the public too. We also do volunteering throughout the Atlanta community. So our group of 20-ish people is able to make an impact,” Chen said.
One of the biggest challenges for the club is recruiting and retaining the buddies. It’s difficult to spread the word, but it’s also hard for the parents to trust college students with their children.
“It’s hard to show parents that we really care about their children,” said Chen.
Some of the parents will join in on the events, much to the dismay of their children.
“We always invite the parents to stick around. A lot of the buddies actually don’t like when their parents stick around just because they feel like they’re being watched,” Chen said.
Another obstacle with the club is creating the most inclusive events possible for the full range of IDD.
“We take buddies of all spectrum of disabilities, some are verbal some are non-verbal, some are highly functioning some are not as high-functioning. We have to cope with that in a way that we can make an all inclusive environment. So that’s difficult especially if we have an event where one buddy is a lot shyer than another,” said Chen.
While wanting to create an accommodating environment, Chen stressed that Tech students need no prior experience.
“Anyone’s welcome. Anyone who’s passionate and can problem solve. Because you never know what somebody with disabilities will do, they’re very unpredictable, you kind of just have to be on your feet and be ready for the unexpected. Which is kind of the fun in it.”
Past events have included a kick-nik (an event with both kickball and a picnic, including both a sandwich and lemonade bar), pool & pool at Square on Fifth (swimming and billiards on the roof), Valentine’s dances and events at campus locations like Tech Rec or Paper & Clay.
Chen’s personal favorite event involved the Titans Wheelchair League. They play a sport that’s a mix between basketball and soccer using their hands to score while in wheelchairs.
“I was able to volunteer with some of the Best Buddies club to actually be in a wheelchair, play with them, and honestly that was when I was like wow these people are so abled, why do they call it a disability. A lot of the people that I’ve met with an IDD are so self advocating and amazing people, and it just kind of puts life into perspective. One that you don’t see if you don’t get involved with people with disabilities. So it’s been pretty rewarding.”
Chen concluded by saying that “it’s really great to be able to give them the opportunity to let them shine and show off their abilities rather than disabilities.”
In the future, Best Buddies is looking to expand to include more Tech students and buddies. Their goal is to continue to spread awareness and understanding of intellectual and developmental disabilities.