Best Buddies Get Together At St. Thomas

Photo by Thomas Rundle
Although Robert doesn't speak except for the occasional drawn-out yes or no, he draws back his head covered in wispy white hair, his eyes light up and his mouth opens up in a gap-toothed grin expressing excitement. He lives in the Center, an assisted-living facility for people with intellectual disabilities. He doesn't receive many visitors, and this is his biggest outing of the year.

For Saturday's Festival of Friendship, the University of St. Thomas was spotted with brightly colored balloons, and a row of tables manned by college and high school students offering activities was set up on each side of the lawn. Best Buddies, a non-profit organization that brings companionship and enjoyment to the mentally handicapped, holds the festival once a year. About a third of the participants in the festival this weekend came from the Center.

Best Buddies relies on its chapters from universities and high schools to provide entertainment and befriend their "buddies."  Being a buddy is a big commitment for high school students and even college students, Kelsey Lawton, president of the University of Houston chapter of Best Buddies, tells Hair Balls, because if volunteers don't come through they aren't just letting down the organization.

"If I have some people fall off," Lawton said, "then I have to explain to a buddy why they don't have a friend anymore." Members are paired with a buddy, and call and visit a couple of times every week.

Many students have taken on this responsibility and come through, setting up booths offering snow cones, face painting, and other types of activities usually seen at a children's carnival for the people from the Center. Best Buddies has been the biggest part of her college experience, Misbah Mohammed, leader of the University of St. Thomas chapter of 35 students, said.  

The Center brought some of their residents by bus, but many of the students picked up their buddy from the facility. Every time a student entered the lobby, most of the residents would come to life, if only to say hi, or to walk or hobble over to talk.

Lawton brought her buddy, Alissa, to the festival. "It's very rewarding," Lawton said, "I get a friend out of it."  If Lawton has a test coming up, Alissa will call her to wish her luck. She even wrote a speech for Lawton. They've been friends for two years now, and go out to dinner, watch movies, and play games at the Center together.

The festival featured a one mile walk around the St. Thomas campus and before and afterward drinks, and entertainment. On the stage put up on the lawn, some of the buddies got up and sang karaoke and danced. One guy really broke it down to "Beat It" by Michael Jackson.

Lawton graduates this semester and hopes to pass on the mantle. "Just seeing someone smile makes you feel good," she said. She's looking for more people who are not only willing to devote the time but also who will enjoy doing it. People are also able to get involved as an associate member, she said, so that even if they don't have the time required to be paired with someone at the Center, they can still show up to events and support in other ways.

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