Best Buddies helps disabled students make friends

Eating dinner in the dining halls, meeting in a class or just a night out in Champaign-Urbana, friendships are formed everyday here on campus. And for one group of people here at the University, friendship is what they’re all about.

Best Buddies is a group on campus dedicated to helping people in the community with disabilities.

“Our goal is to empower people with disabilities, matching them up, and facilitating one-on-one friendships with college students,” said Claire Downs, sophomore in education and co-director of Best Buddies. “We want it to become a normal friendship you would have with anyone else.”

Best Buddies is one of the 16 Volunteer Illini Projects on campus, made up of about 200 volunteers. The group holds events twice a month.

“We have done a ton of events, (like) Seussical the Musical IUB production, the end of the year picnic is coming up, sporting events and holiday parties held at the Union,” Downs said.

The pairs are expected to hang out twice a month and talk twice a week, though members don’t consider it an obligation.

“It’s like any other friendship,” said Cindy Donati, co-director with Downs and junior in LAS. “(My buddy) is always there to talk to, and I’m always here for him to talk to.”

Donati knows how much participating in Best Buddies has changed her.

“I’ve definitely learned how to be patient,” she said. “I learned to wait for them to talk, to understand what they’re saying and to take the time to listen and not get frustrated.”

Donati has helped her buddy gain confidence through their time together the past three years.

“When we were first paired he was very shy,” she said. “He has come out of his shell and gotten so much more responsible over the past few years. Everyone knows his name and he makes himself known.”

Three-year member and former co-director Ismail Umer, junior in LAS, can relate to Donati’s positive experience.

“My buddy right now is Danny,” said Umer. “We like to go to sporting events and anything involving music, he’s a singer himself and he’s a member of the Parkland Pops. We always go to Pizza Hut because that’s his favorite place to eat.”

This friendship is the result of spending a lot of time together.

“I didn’t really know him at first,” said Umer. “He’s hard to understand sometimes as a part of the disability, but I have gotten really good at understanding. It’s nice to see how I got to know and understand him better.”

Umer plans on using his experiences in Best Buddies in his future as he pursues a career in occupational therapy.

“I’ll be working with people with disabilities,” he said. “The experience I’ve gotten here will definitely help. I think people can be nervous around people with disabilities, but I’ve gotten that out of the way. I’ll be using my understanding of how disabilities affect people firsthand.”

Umer knows his time with Best Buddies is well spent.

“Going to events and seeing how excited the buddies are is the best part,” he said. “They look forward to it, and when it goes well it’s always a great feeling.”