“The Best Best Buddies Chapter”
Interview with Mary Dolan and Tara Dolan
Transcribed by Sarah Blahovec
ANNOUNCER: Blog Talk Radio
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MARY DOLAN: Hello, and welcome to the Mary and Melissa show, a project of Inclusion Zone. It’s that 501(c)3 that you’ve been hearing about that is dedicated to making sure that families and parents have what they need to make sure that their kids with disabilities get what they need for a life of success at home, at school, and in the community. And our show is like I said part of Inclusion Zone, find us at www.inclusionzone.org, we’ve got great sponsors like the Kiwanis Club of Bethesda, Merrill Lynch, which did not go away there, they got consumed by Bank of America, way to go Merrill, and lots of other terrific folks out there, Meg O’Connell and Fisher Health. Golly, I could go on and on, but today, let’s get to our show. I am joined by one of those dynamic young people. She also is my niece, so a full disclosure there, but even if I didn’t have a relation to her by blood I would think she’s pretty amazing anyway, because she was on of the leaders, Vice Presidents of the Best Buddies Chapter of Washington and Lee High School which is in Arlington, Virginia, and not only did she run the Best Buddies chapter there but they got awarded the best of the Best Buddies chapters in the world, which is really amazing. So hello Tara, welcome on the show.
TARA DOLAN: Thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure to join you.
MARY: Thank you so much. So for those of us who don’t, I know what Best Buddies are, but there might be one or two stragglers out there who don’t know what Best Buddies is. What is it?
TARA: So Best Buddies is a non-profit organization dedicated to establishing a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendship, integrated employment, and leadership development with intellectual and developmental disabilities. So that’s our mission statement, but our core message at the highschool level is that we try to create friendships between kids, students with and without disabilities in as natural a way as possible.
MARY: Hmm, okay, so I kinda have this concept of what Best Buddies is like, where I think okay, you sign up on a list and you’re matched with some guy or gal who is on a list of kids with disabilities, whatever type that is and you get matched up and you go figure it out from there. I mean I’m sure it’s a little bit more than that so help fill in the gaps in my concept of it.
TARA: So Best Buddies is a little bit more structured than that. How we do it at Washington and Lee is if you are interested in being a peer buddy which is you are matched up in a one-to-one friendship, you go through an interview process with the officers of the club and you talk about what kind of activities you like to do, what you like to do on the weekends, what you do when you spend time with your family or when you spend time with your friends, anything you would normally do with your friends, we talk about that, and then we have an event where you go and you interact with all of the students with disabilities and you see which matches are, which matches people would be the best match. And then if you don’t wanna have that level of commitment in the club you can also be an associate member which is just a member who comes to the club events, they’ll hang out with the buddies and interact but they don’t actually have that one-to-one friendship.
MARY: Oh! It sounds like kind of like speed dating, is it kinda like that?
TARA: Kind of like that, but we try to make it natural and just like it’s any other friendship.
MARY: So if you’re totally liking somebody in that friendly way that, she’s awesome, I wanna be her buddy and that individual does not want to be your buddy, either side gets the option to opt out.
TARA: Of course, we want to make sure that both the student with disabilities and the student without disabilities are in the best friendship possible.
MARY: Okay. So as a parent and thinking about parents of the folks who are on the side of the students with disabilities, how can a parent feel, I mean Best Buddies yeah it’s got a great reputation but how do you make sure that you’re gonna get somebody who really values and will treat your son or daughter well?
TARA: A lot of it is up to the officers and just kind of relying on the club itself. If the parent ever has a problem, they can make a switch but all the peer buddies that interview are very dedicated and passionate about the club so they all do wanna be there, there’s nobody who joins our club who’s just trying to boost the college resume or get community service hours. Everybody who’s there wants to be there, they wanna interact with students with and without disabilities and they really wanna promote inclusion in all aspects of life.
MARY: So let me ask you this. So you know, the community, the disability community has made great strides, there’s inclusive schools, your school is one that has people with, I mean everybody has schools these days with and without disabilities. Why is Best Buddies still needed?
TARA: Best Buddies is still needed because there’s still a lot of discrimination, there’s still a lot of misconception that students or adults with a disability aren’t capable of achieving things, of going to college, having jobs and even if they say on an application for employment that there’s no discrimination, there absolutely is because a lot of people just don’t understand all the wide range of skills that somebody with disabilities may have. Best Buddies is so important and I think it’s just, you can start as early as middle school and if you join, you just start opening up your mind and seeing all these great things that any student with a disability, no matter how high functioning or low functioning, how capable they are of achieving great things, and if you start learning that message early on, you’ll carry that on for the rest of your life and you’ll spread that to other people and your friends and family.
MARY: So you’ve had a buddy for a few years?
TARA: Yeah, I’ve been with my buddy for the past few years, actually. Her name’s Jessica.
MARY: Oh, can you tell us, and we’re sorry Jessica couldn’t join us, but can you tell us about your buddy?
TARA: Yeah, Jessica is a grade younger than me. She is autistic and achieved very high functioning. She is what I’ve heard from her teachers is that she’s a joy to have in class, she’s always smiling, she’s always positive, and she’s absolutely amazing to hang out with. She always brightens my day when I see her in school, she’ll approach me in the hallways and we’ll go to lunch together and hang out on the weekends. It’s really fun.
MARY: And how did you two get matched up? What was it that threw the two of you to each other?
TARA: I think that we were matched up because Jessica, when we were matched up, she was a freshman, and the officers wanted somebody who was, we weren’t really sure, we didn’t know a lot about her, we didn’t know if she was very outgoing or more shy, so they wanted me to kind of see what kind of buddy she was and knew that I could kind of fulfill any friendship that she wanted, ‘cause, yeah (laughs).
MARY: So you’re kind of like the versatile buddy, you can plug in anywhere.
MARY: I could say that, that’s my niece, she’s absolutely wonderful of course. So what’s Jessica gonna do when you graduate?
TARA: She has been talking about that for a long time, that she’ll miss me but I’m gonna make sure that the buddy, the peer buddy to come (unclear), if I do say so myself. Make sure she’s with somebody really excellent and really wants to be in a friendship with her.
MARY: That’s awesome. So your chapter, in 2015 received a tremendous award as the Best Best Buddy Chapter in the universe! How did that happen? I mean, that’s, Best Best Buddies, I don’t know how many countries but it’s in a lot of countries.
TARA: Yeah, I don’t know exactly how many it is in but when we went to the leadership conference, annual leadership conference in Indianapolis over the summer, I saw chapters from all around the world, from all different continents and that was great to see how large the foundation is, but we got recognized because we are known for being the largest chapter in Virginia. We have the most members, associate members and peer buddies, we also have a lot of students with disabilities at our schools, which a lot of schools they have very small numbers of students with disabilities so they can’t have as big of a chapter. That was one thing that we got recognized by. We’re also just a really stand out example of how much we succeeded with inclusion in the community and I think one of the best examples of this is a few, every year we have an annual football event where we go out after school before a football game on a Friday and we have all the football jocks and all the buddies and everybody in the club goes out and we just do a lot of activities and I remember a few years ago, the whole football team was part of the club and a bunch of them had buddies themselves, so that’s kind of, you know, you have the stereotype like a football player, popular kids being matched up with these students with disabilities and I think that really stood out to a lot of people.
TARA: We’ve also won multiple awards for fundraising.
MARY: Oh, very good. Oh that’s great, well you’ll have to give me some of your tips for raising money, but that’s really great. It sounds like you’re really focused on also shattering stereotypes, and finding the commonality between people no matter what. So what do you think without Best Buddies in your school, I mean it’s kind of hard to imagine it, and I know that it helps amplify the opportunity for friendship, but without a Best Buddy club, it would be difficult to make those friendships still, I would imagine, at least the quality in the friendships.
TARA: Definitely. I think that Best Buddies also promotes a lot of integrated classroom and it really gives a lot of the students with disabilities the confidence to go out of their way and talk to other people and people I’ve noticed that are buddies within the club, they’ll be walking through the hallways and they’ll be saying hi to my friends and then my buddy will be introducing them to their other friends and it just kind of creates this whole network of friendship and without Best Buddies, I don’t think that that message would be there that we can all be friends, it doesn’t have to be kids with disabilities in one corner and kids without them in another corner. We can all be together.
MARY: I love it, I love it. That’s, you know what I really like about it is we ask schools to do so much, and I work in a school and I want all schools to keep doing more and more to include and normalize every experience under the sun but sometimes it does take another structure such as a Best Buddies to just sort of, and as it has done in the Washington and Lee community and create that space and so that’s, and then of course having cool, hip leaders and go getters who organize and that’s really, really great. I know there was one thing that really struck me Tara when you went to the international conference to receive the award with your presidents that you were experiencing a temporary disability at that time which I always think is very interesting for folks to experience because when you go around as able bodied, you don’t always have the perspective. So I thought you might wanna just touch on that a little bit.
TARA: Yeah, so ironically enough right before the conference literally the day before, I sprained my ankle playing soccer, which was a big pain because the whole time at the conference we walked a ton so I was on crutches the whole time, I had to get bus service, I had at one point, they had to walk me in a wheelchair, which I didn’t enjoy at all but was definitely helpful. It was so interesting because I was at this conference saying that no person with a disability should ever be thought of as they can’t succeed in life, and here I was just always focused on not being able to walk and not being able to do anything and multiple times throughout the conference the students with disabilities and buddies that I know would come up to me and they’d say hey, can I help you out, like do you need help getting off the bus, like let me carry your food tray for you, and it was kind of interesting to see that reverse role of, it was them really trying to help me out the whole time instead of the other way around.
MARY: Oh, that is an invaluable experience and insight that luckily you’ve had it at a very young age and it’s, I really applaud you for having that maturity to embrace that experience and all of its wonder and see how the community can rally around you. You’re off to college. How are you going to take ethos of Best Buddies to wherever you may go from here?
TARA: So Best Buddies is already in a lot of colleges. There are college-level chapters so hopefully wherever I go will already have one. If not, I will definitely look into starting a chapter, so that’s always an option, to start your own chapter. If that’s not an option, I definitely want to promote everything that I’ve learned and everything that Best Buddies is about even in college, not just, the thing that we wanna stress is that it’s not just a club that you join and you drop, it’s more what you get out of the club and what you carry on for the rest of your life. That’s really the point of why you’re joining this wonderful group.
MARY: I love that, that you just said it’s what you carry on for the rest of your life. I have someone who I was doing some graduate work with who was a best buddy like you in high school and now she’s well into her 20s and she and her best buddy are still, they text all the time and email and she said this is somebody who will be part of my life for my entire life and it started with Best Buddies, and so I, you’re changing lives and not only, you’re not changing the lives, not only of students with disabilities but you’re changing the lives of yourself and those who sign up to be their buddies. So way to go, Tara Dolan!
MARY: Well thank you so much for joining us to talk about Best Buddies, the Best Best Buddy Chapter at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia. We congratulate you for your great achievement, and we’re proud to have had you on our show, and everyone, this is yet another wonderful installation of the Mary and Melissa Show which is a project of Inclusion Zone. So keep on listening, check out Best Buddies, you parents out there, it’s a good group and like Tara said, if you got any questions about it, you make sure you find out that it’s a good group for your kid but if it’s anything like the Washington and Lee group, you’re gonna be in really good hands. Alright, everybody, take care.