In 2015, I was asked to serve on the State Advisory Board for Best Buddies Arkansas, the local affiliate to Best Buddies International. Founded by Anthony Shriver in 1989, Best Buddies International is the world’s largest organization dedicated to ending the social, physical, and economic isolation of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Best Buddies does this through friendship programs in middle schools, high schools, and colleges where students with disabilities are paired with non-disabled students to form lifelong friendships; jobs programs designed to promote integrated employment; and leadership development programs designed to empower and educate people with and without disabilities to become leaders, public speakers, and advocates. When I first learned of Best Buddies, I knew instantly it was a program I wanted to support. Best Buddies has only been in Arkansas officially for three short years, but has already impacted the lives of countless students through 16 student-led chapters in various Arkansas middle schools, high schools, and colleges.
Best Buddies Arkansas Executive Director Angela Kremers has worked tirelessly to promote and support our current chapters, and to grow Best Buddies throughout the state. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Angela about the status of Best Buddies Arkansas and her plans for growth in the state:
How did Best Buddies come to Arkansas?
As part of Best Buddies International’s recent initiative, the organization set a goal to open offices in all 50 states by the end of 2020. Arkansas became the 24th expansion state thanks to Marty and Karen Hesch of Jonesboro, along with a passionate and supportive advisory board. For the Hesch family, Best Buddies’ mission is a very personal one. Their youngest daughter, Teagan, was born with Down syndrome and a major heart defect that has required three open heart surgeries. Marty and Karen were originally inspired to start the Arkansas chapter after Marty went hunting with Mark Shriver, whose brother, Anthony, founded the program in 1989. Karen says it wasn’t long before they realized that the Jonesboro community was going to be very receptive to such a special idea and fundraising efforts began.
How did you personally get involved with Best Buddies?
My undergraduate degree is in Occupational Therapy, which provided me wonderful opportunities to work with individuals with disabilities. I later progressed in my career to administration and nonprofit management and have missed the direct interaction. When I heard about Best Buddies and their goal to expand into Arkansas, I was inspired to apply for the State Director’s job to bring together my past work as an OT, my love for nonprofits, and my administrative experience. My personal connection to the mission includes my beautiful niece who was born with spina bifida. She experienced social difficulties in public schools and enrolled in private schools to get away from some of the challenges that exist for individuals with disabilities in public schools.
How many schools currently have a Best Buddies chapter? What are they?
Best Buddies Arkansas currently has 16 active and pending chapters in Arkansas. This includes middle schools, high schools, and colleges. Chapters are geographically distributed across the state, including: Bryant, Conway, Little Rock, Fayetteville, Jonesboro, Beebe, and Fort Smith.
What kind of a difference does Best Buddies make to a student who is intellectually or developmentally disabled?
Best Buddies provides opportunities for one-to-one friendships, leadership development, and jobs for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities. The school friendship program helps address the social isolation that many disabled individuals experience. The impact not only reaches those with disabilities, but also the peer buddies without disabilities who gain positive life experiences as well. Imagine going through school without a single friend, or going through school being “invisible” or being bullied. These unfortunate situations exist and Best Buddies is working to change this.
Participants in the Ambassador program learn to speak publicly and advocate for themselves and others with disabilities. We recently had several Ambassadors speak to legislators during committee hearings at the state capitol. One of the Ambassadors received a standing ovation when she was done speaking. This opportunity provided her a voice and confidence in her disabilities and abilities.
Thanks to Angela for her dedication and hard work in growing the Best Buddies program throughout Arkansas. We’ve made great strides in such a short amount of time, and we couldn’t have done it without her or our amazing advisory board.
Best Buddies Arkansas is holding its annual Friendship Walk on April 22, 2017 at 9:30 a.m. at the Clinton Presidential Library in downtown Little Rock. If you’d like to walk, donate, or volunteer, you can find more information here. And if you’re interested in bringing Best Buddies to your school, or you’d like to know how you can get involved, you can contact Angela at firstname.lastname@example.org.