Reporting by Erin Valentine
For Elon junior Caitlin Jones, enduring persistence has proved successful.
“If you keep bugging people, eventually they say yes,” Jones said, describing her determination to bring Best Buddies, a nonprofit organization that connects volunteers with people with intellectual and learning disabilities (IDD), to Elon University’s campus.
Best Buddies works to establish a global organization of volunteers who promote friendships and increased employment and leadership of those with IDD.
This year is the first year that Elon University’s chapter has been officially affiliated with Best Buddies International.
Jones, who was involved with Best Buddies all four years in high school, immediately began a campaign her freshman year to get Best Buddies on Elon’s campus.
“During my four years at high school I was involved with Best Buddies and I had the same buddy all four years,” Jones explained. “We became really close friends and she’s still one of my best friends today. I just wanted to bring that experience to Elon.”
Jones, originally told that there wasn’t enough need for Best Buddies at Elon, persisted and eventually was able to make the organization come to fruition at Elon by starting a relationship with Alamance Community College’s Career Program.
“For two years we just spent time doing things with our community and growing that bond with our partner, Alamance Community College,” Jones said.
Jones has seen Elon’s chapter of Best Buddies grow to its current status as part of Best Buddies International.
“There’s always a need for Best Buddies in the community because making friendships is something that people with disabilities really struggle with,” Jones explained. “This organization isn’t only to benefit people with disabilities but also to benefit Elon students and to open their minds to disabilities and realize that people with disabilities are just like us and they have the same insecurities and fears and likes and dislikes.”
Jones hopes for future coordinators to be as passionate about Best Buddies as she is.
“I hope that they want to continue growing in the mission of Best Buddies and creating those one-on-one friendships,” Jones said. “And that they don’t lose sight of the fact that friendships between students who go to Elon and students with disabilities are very important and that isn’t something we should lose sight of.”
Elon juniors Natalie Sipala and Emily Benson have also found a connection to Best Buddies and are co-coordinators with Jones.
Sipala heard about Best Buddies from Jones, who lived on her hall freshman year and who is now her roommate.
“Sophomore year I went to every single event and literally fell in love with all the buddies and had such an amazing experience and I can honestly say I’m best friends with some of the buddies,” Sipala said. “I just wanted to be a part of helping it grow.”
According to Sipala, Elon’s chapter of Best Buddies has about 20 very consistent buddies from Alamance Community College and about 100 Elon students signed up to come to events.
“Eventually we hope to expand so that all of our Elon students can be paired one-on-one and become even better friends with their buddies and have it not even be considered by Elon students as a service project, more like hanging out with their friends,” Sipala explained.
Best Buddies hosts group events every other Friday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., ranging from events at Kopper Top to doing Zumba to partnering with Campus Kitchens.
To find people who fit well as peer buddies, Elon students are interviewed and come to events to see how they interact with the students with disabilities. The volunteers must be responsible and able to handle any situation.
“You tell pretty easily who is good at working with the students,” Sipala said.
Sipala finds that the events are her favorite, along with a lot of the buddies’ reactions afterward.
“The buddies after the events are probably my favorite part because they just tell us how awesome it was and they’re just so appreciative and so excited after each event,” Sipala said.
Benson, an Event Coordinator, finds that Best Buddies opens up opportunities for the community and Elon University.
“Best Buddies is important for two reasons: benefiting a community of people with disabilities, and benefiting Elon students by opening their eyes/minds,” Benson explained.