Best Buddies Friendship Programme— Fostering, sustaining and enriching lives

by Gerry McLaughlin and Ann Deering Muiríosa Foundation/SCJMS

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Can we make a difference?

Health and happiness are what we treasure most as human beings. Life’s journey is always more fulfilling when it is shared and enhanced by the company of good and loyal friends. Robert Louis Stevenson believed that ‘a friend is a gift you give yourself.’ Jean Vanier felt that to be truly human we should have a strong sense of ‘belonging’—within one’s family and in a community surrounded by friends. Through it’s friendship programme, Best Buddies attempts to address the fundamental need in each person to ‘belong to’ and to ‘be cared for’ in society. ‘It takes just two to make a friendship, but it takes just you to make a difference’.

Muiríosa Foundation /Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary

The Muiriosa Foundation /Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary Services (MF/SCJM) is a caring community whose mission is to value life, and to help people with intellectual disabilities to build meaningful lifestyles, ‘in and through relationships’ and to fulfil our Christian calling by encouraging each person to live life to the full. The Best Buddy programme empowers people with intellectual disability to experience the life-affirming qualities of friendship and love. In doing so it empowers them to experience joy and hope in their lives, to build upon friendships that will enable them to reach their full potential, in order to face each day with courage and confidence. In essence Best Buddies is about making a difference in people’s lives.
Best Buddies is one of a number of volunteer programmes run by MF/SCJM throughout its three regions in the Midlands— Longford/Westmeath/Meath, Laois/Offaly and South Kildare (including its headquarters at Moore Abbey, Monasterevin). For more information on the volunteer programme go to www.muiriosa.ie and follow the link to volunteers.

Best Buddies, USA

Founded in 1989 by Anthony Kennedy-Shriver, Best Buddies impacts positively on more than 400,000 participants worldwide. It comprises six programmes (primary and secondary schools, colleges, jobs, e-buddies and leadership). Its mission is in ‘establishing a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual disabilities’. Best Buddy participants help builds a more inclusive world, ‘one friendship at a time’.

Best Buddies, Ireland

Set up in Ireland in 2002/3, initially by the KARE organisation in Kildare and Wicklow, the programme was introduced into the following Services; MF/SCJM, Midway in Meath, Ability West in Galway, COPE Foundation and the Brothers of Charity in Cork. MF/SCJM has been running a Best Buddy Programme in two secondary schools in Meath (Athboy Community School and Scoil Mhuire in Trim) since the beginning with hundreds of young people being matched in one-to-one friendships during those years. The highlight for all participants is the Annual Best Buddy Ball. For the past two years both Midway Services and MF/SCJM have run a joint Best Buddy school programme in Trim, Co Meath. There is also a parallel adult ‘citizen’ buddy programme in MF/SCJM, with sixty matched pairs.

Friendships and person-centred plans (PCPs)

Service-users often seek through their PCPs friends ‘outside’ of their service and family. Many want to have the companionship of friends from their local community, friends who would call and chat over a cup of coffee, watch a video or listen to music with them, or accompany them for lunch. As service-users became more familiar with the communities in which they lived, friendships became more and more important to them. One of the difficulties in beginning the Best Buddy friendship process is matching interests and, more importantly, maintaining these matches throughout the first three or four months. Communication, meeting-up and doing things together are crucial in the early stages of the developing friendship. Issues of the availability of transport and access to local amenities may often arise. A Best Buddies Programme, fully supported by dedicated staff and family members, leads eventually to the growth and development of natural friendships.

How Best Buddies is implemented and fostered

Selection process: This includes presentation of programmes in various settings. Participants are then selected following interview, receipt of satisfactory references and Garda vetting. Matching: Buddies are matched to a standard set of criteria through gender, age, similar interests and location. Expectation: Successful participants are required to contact each other weekly by telephone, texting, letter or email and to meet with each other twice a month for an activity they both agree on. How long they spend with each other and when they meet will depend on each person’s schedule. As in any friendship, each person pays for himself or herself.

Sharing common interests: Participants engage in a myriad of activities—dining out in local restaurants and cafes, going to sporting events, engaging in leisure activities such as the cinema, aerobics, theatre, bowling and swimming or joining an adult education evening class, such as photography or art. Attending regular church services and joining the choir in their local church has been important for two people on the programme, as is helping out on a tidy towns community programme for others. Some participants like to take a relaxing walk in a local park or along the Royal Canal, while another pair of friends have taken a loaf of bread to feed the swans on Lough Ennell.

The successful outcomes of the programme for participants

Action research carried out by Best Buddy coordinators in KARE and MF/SCJM has found that the growth and development of mutually enriching friendships was apparent for the majority of participants.

For the matched pair of friends

There are increased opportunities for socialisation and participation in local communities. Coordinators and frontline staff noted an ‘increase in self-esteem and self-confidence’ in service-users; their ‘attention to their appearance’ when going out, their ‘increased attempts at communicating’ and their ‘comfort level with new people’, and the ‘expansion of their social networks’. Many felt that they ‘grew in their relationship by meeting regularly’ and by ‘engaging in their particular interests’, i.e. going to a football match, arts activity or to social events together. Sinéad, for example, had introduced her Buddy Breda to her love of photography and they now attend local evening classes together. After fours years on the programme, Breda is now one of her ‘best friends’ and introduces her as such to her other friends and family. Sinéad no longer considers herself in the ‘volunteer’ category. Pauline, another citizen volunteer, speaks of her special relationship with Mary: ‘I did not expect to get so fond of her. She is so positive and cheerful.’ Mary too looks forward to their meetings; ‘She’s a great laugh…she puts life into you’! [What a wonderful turn of phrase!] I love meeting up with her and I get to meet her family and friends as well.’ Marie-Therese told us that since she joined the programme about four years ago there is a ‘big difference in me. I’m happier in myself; I’m enjoying myself more since I met my friend Cathy and I’m getting to know more people in my local community.’

The programme does fulfill our hopes—that friendships would develop naturally. Staff members also believe that the scheme has huge potential for service-users in that it ‘links them into the community, esp. in the evenings,’ and ‘normalises their lives outside of the service.’ Here are some more comments from service-users: ‘I had a great laugh in the back of the bus when we went to the (Buddy) Ball.’ ‘I have loads of letters in my room now.’ ‘She [student/peer buddy] told me about herself and her family.’ ‘The best thing was being on my own with no staff and no parents,’ and ‘I met many new nice people.’

The students

‘It has heightened my awareness of disability’ and ‘I’m getting satisfaction out of the work’ were two important factors mentioned by many students. ‘I didn’t know how important it was to say hello to all the other participants, for example, the other buddies on the programme whenever we would meet up for an activity or when we would meet on the street’. Issues of equality, independence and discrimination became ‘live issues’ for the students.

The families of the service-users

One family felt they had ‘some space and free time’ when their son was involved in the programme. There was also an increased family awareness of the ‘abilities’ and the ‘social needs’ of their sibling. ‘I am proud that my son is involved in his local community—his first time to do so without our help’, and [one wonderful comment from a mother in Kildare] ‘now when the phone rings, it could be for John!’

The Organisation Forging links

Best Buddies has opened up new opportunities for relationships and developing friendships for service-users throughout the service over the past six years, friendships that otherwise may not have arisen. The programme is seen by staff as an exciting new social programme for new and existing service-users and their families in the years ahead. There is also a feeling that the programme has helped in supporting and strengthening the link between disability services, families and local communities.

The community

A community example that stands out is where students highlighted to their parents that the absence of a pedestrian crossing in their busy town was a danger to ‘their’ buddies. A proactive action was taken and a crossing was installed by the county council.

In conclusion, Best Buddies really makes a difference

Anthony Kennedy Shriver, in a eulogy to his mother Eunice wrote,
‘my mother’s lifelong commitment to people with intellectual disability has taught me that there is no greater joy than the satisfaction of contributing one’s time and energy to the enhancement of another person’s life.’ His Best Buddies Programme is a shining example of that same principle. We posed the question at the beginning of this article: ‘can we make a difference?’ In the immortal words of US President Barack Obama, ‘Yes we can!’

Gerry McLaughlin is Volunteer/Best Buddies Programme Manager, Muiríosa Foundation/Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary Services. Ann Deering works with the Muiríosa Foundation/Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary Services in their area of advocacy and volunteering programmes.

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