Lehigh’s Best Buddies club hosted a Thanksgiving event where students invited members of the Bethlehem community with intellectual and developmental disabilities to a Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday Nov. 17.
The club promotes inclusion and provides an avenue for friendships between those with disabilities and those without.
“Best Buddies is a nonprofit organization that are found throughout middle schools, high schools, colleges in the country,” said Libby Berman, ’20, one of the club’s vice presidents. “It’s basically working to help people with either learning disabilities or social disabilities be paired with members of the community, to integrate this sense of belonging in the community and feelings of friendship. The club is organized through the Best Buddies organization, that works with clubs internationally to set up these pairings within communities.”
Berman said the club provides a way for the community members, or “buddies,” to get involved with community events that they may otherwise not feel comfortable attending because they don’t know anyone or don’t have means of getting there.
“We really just foster this sense of community and that they’re not alone, and that even though they may suffer from whatever type of disability,” Berman said.
When someone joins the club, they get matched with a buddy family, based on preferences, and go through an online process to ensure that they are sticking to the purpose of the club. For some, there is one buddy that they are officially matched with online and hang out with often outside the club.
But there are also members of the club that just act as part of the buddy family, going to the events with the duo throughout the year.
Berman said she often goes to the movies, bowling or for ice cream with her buddies.
The club has monthly events that every member participates in. The events start in September every school year, and are centered around getting to know the new members. This is followed by a Halloween-themed event in October.
At events, there are often creative activities such as making friendship bracelets, making tie-dye shirts and singing karaoke.
“The purpose of all these events is to form friendships with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and bring them into our community,” said club president Christy Cullen, ‘21, said.
At the club’s annual Thanksgiving, known as Battle of the Holidays, there is a Thanksgiving meal for the buddies to attend together.
“I opened it up to the parents, and I think just having an actual sit-down Thanksgiving meal is really special because some of our buddies don’t actually live in their homes,” Cullen said.
Cullen said because some of the buddies require constant care that their parents can’t provide, they live in group homes.
Cullen has been involved with Best Buddies for seven years, since her freshman year of high school. In high school, she had the same buddy all four years, with whom she is still in close contact.
Cullen said she first joined the program because her best friend’s older sister was diagnosed with mitochondrial disease and some of her friends in elementary school had down syndrome.
“I grew up kind of knowing what inclusion felt like and how important it was to me,” Cullen said.
Cullen said the goal of the club, and the Best Buddies organization as a whole, is to make it possible that the program won’t have to exist one day.
“Spreading inclusion is going to be someone’s second nature,” Cullen said. “It doesn’t need to be ingrained or taught to someone.”
The other vice president of the club, Morgan Comisac, ‘20, was not involved with Best Buddies in high school, but has been committed and passionate during her time at Lehigh.
Comisac said when she was growing up, she had a family friend with a daughter who had multiple disabilities, with whom she formed a close bond while babysitting. When she got to Lehigh, she said she saw a chance to continue her love for giving back to the community and connecting with people by spreading inclusion.
“A college campus often does not see the inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, but this club provides a gateway for that,” Comisac said. “It’s just a really cool way of meeting people in the Bethlehem and larger area, that you wouldn’t normally meet on campus.”