Best Buddies International is an organization that works to promote inclusion and eliminate the social isolation of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Co-Founders and co-Presidents Christopher LaBudde and Samantha Raymond have grown the Tufts chapter of Best Buddies, a subgroup of the Leonard Carmichael Society, expanding the group to incorporate 40 undergraduate members and two partnerships with local high schools. For LaBudde, starting the chapter stemmed from a personal reason.
“I was inspired to start the chapter because my younger brother, Timothy, has Down syndrome and is on the autism spectrum,” LaBudde wrote in an email to the Daily. “Growing up with a younger brother who has a disability has given me a unique perspective and it has shaped me into the person I am today.”
Along with promoting inclusion by forming friendships and relationships with people with IDD, Best Buddies is committed to educating communities on disabilities.
“The most prevalent reason, in my opinion, for people teasing or excluding people with IDD is due to ignorance or fear of saying the wrong thing,” Raymond said in an email to the Daily. According to Raymond, the organization also creates programs to help people with IDD find "jobs, friends, and a platform where they can be heard."
Best Buddies has lived up to its name, with buddies fostering friendships with their volunteers through weekly communication and monthly group events. In pre-pandemic times, these events included a Thanksgiving fair, a bowling event at Flatbread Company in Davis Square and dance parties.
“My high school buddy and I are as close as ever, and she’s become a very trusted friend to me,” Raymond said in an email to the Daily. “She inspires me to be the best version of myself every day and I want others to have that type of life-changing connection.”
Now, the club has transitioned to a virtual format, which has been very successful and effective, according to Raymond.
During the pandemic, creating community environments for people with IDD is even more important. “While you may have attended zoom cocktail parties or game nights, many people with IDD are not being invited to those events and feeling more alone than ever before,” Raymond said. “For many, this has been the reality before this pandemic.”
Tufts’ Best Buddies chapter was awarded Massachusetts Outstanding College Chapter in 2020.
“One message that always stands out to me from Best Buddies trainings and conferences is the fact that one of the organization’s [goals] is that it will one day no longer have to exist,” LaBudde wrote. “Best Buddies envisions a world where inclusion of folks with IDD is a given, not something that must be fought for.”
Tufts Special Olympics, also a subgroup of the Leonard Carmichael Society, is an organization on campus that shares Best Buddies’ value of inclusivity. Started by sophomores Ben Katz and Andrew D’Amico, the club has already raised $4,500 through social media channels for Special Olympics Massachusetts. The fundraiser? A polar plunge. According to Katz, the polar plunge is an annual event that typically involves participants gathering at a beach during the winter and running into the freezing ocean together. This year, because of COVID-19, everyone is completing the plunge on their own and uploading the video for a donation to the organization.
Katz has been volunteering with Special Olympics since sixth grade, and his passion for the group led him to found a Tufts chapter.
“The most rewarding part is honestly seeing the smiles on kids faces — seeing them have so much fun and [be able to] hang out with the other kids … and it’s making a difference in their lives,” Katz said. “All they want is to be like any other kid.”
While some Special Olympics athletes can be as young as two years old, Katz says the Tufts chapter will most likely be working with high school-aged students. This semester, the club plans to conduct exercises and drills with athletes over Zoom.
“[After the pandemic], we’re hoping to start off with basketball and volleyball at Cousens gym,” Katz said. Future plans include expanding the club to host more sports and events. According to Katz, Special Olympics Boston University is already a large chapter, so he hopes to partner with and join them in their annual end-of-year sports event.
When it comes to building relationships with kids with disabilities, Katz emphasized three values: flexibility, patience and kindness.
“[With] the kids who don’t really talk, physical touching like a hand on their back to guide them where to go works better,” Katz said. “The kids who are more social, knowing how to separate them from the nonsocial kids so the nonsocial kids don’t feel pressed upon.”
According to Katz, there is only one prerequisite to joining Tufts Special Olympics. “All you have to do is be kind, be supportive of everybody, because it’s just a community and we just want to make everyone happy," he said.
Looking to serve the Tufts student body specifically, sophomore Jessica Goober kick-started ABLE (Access Betters the Lives of Everyone), with the help of the StAAR Center.
“We’re a student group focused on creating opportunities for students with disabilities on campus," Goober said. "[We fight] for visibility justice on our campus, which is part of educating and starting conversations."
In addition to running meetings every other week, one of ABLE’s events was its “Cookies and Critiques” event last semester, during which students outlined what things were and were not working regarding accessibility on campus. This semester, the club is focusing specifically on social media accessibility and making small changes that have a big impact.
“We’re in the process of reaching out to local Tufts organizations and trying to encourage people to use closed captioning in their videos [and] use alt text image descriptions,” Goober said.
According to Goober, disabilities can be difficult to identify, and because many disabilities are invisible and stigmatized, people hesitate to self-identify.
“I’m trying to make it to a point where people are comfortable talking about these things because it does affect a good amount of our population at Tufts, more than you might realize," Goober said.
In this day and age, when separation proves to be a great detriment to people with disabilities, these student groups hope to help make inclusivity prevail.
“Inclusivity is a powerful force of good and a little effort on each individual’s part has the potential to make a lasting impact on someone else’s life,” Raymond said.