Founded in 1989 by Anthony Kennedy Shriver, Best Buddies is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering one-on-one friendships between people with and without intellectual disabilities. Here ABILITY’s Chet Cooper speaks with Shriver about the worldwide growth of Best Buddies, including successful initiatives and expansion into the Middle East.
Shriver: The great thing about Best Buddies is there’s something for everybody. You can be a volunteer in some shape, form or fashion, whether you’re volunteering to get your kids involved, whether your son or daughter is involved in their school program, whether you want to be a mentor yourself as an adult, whether you want to get an online Buddy, whether you’re an employer and want to hire someone with a disability to work in your office—if you’ve got any sense of motivation and determination and want to give back, there’s a role for you at Best Buddies, which I think is pretty unique. Even in Special Olympics, for most people, you can be a coach or a spectator, but you’re not going to run the 50-yard dash. In Best Buddies, you’re running the 50-yard dash with your Buddy. People get a different level of experience by participating, as opposed to writing a check, though that’s important, too. But beyond writing checks, we need people to get involved and give their time.
Cooper: We did an article about you years and years ago. Tell me about how your program’s expanded.
Shriver: There are about 220 people who work for Best Buddies in all 50 states now, and another 100 people outside the U.S. in 41 countries. Our budget’s over $20 million. We run six different divisions. We’ve got a middle school program, high schools, colleges. We have an adult-based program called Best Buddies Citizens. We have an online program called eBuddies. We have our jobs program, which I think we had when I talked to you guys before. Our support-employ program is now in a few different cities in Florida, Massachusettes and California, and we’re trying to expand to other states. We’re actually just launching that in Poland as well.
The economy’s tough, but thank God we’ve got an international, worldwide organization, where we’ve got lots of different streams of revenue coming in from all over the world, so we’re not as dependent on the state of the U.S. market.
Cooper: Did you ever picture it growing into what it’s become today?
Shriver: I’m not great at thinking what’s going to happen five, 10 years down the road. I just keep my head down and keep working hard toward what I think is right for Best Buddies. It leads me wherever it leads me. We are pleased with where we are today, but we still have huge work to do. There are five million people with intellectual disabilities in the U.S. alone. They say there’s 40 to 50 million people with disabilities in the U.S., and close to 200 million worldwide with intellectual disabilities, so the population’s huge, and we’re just touching the tip of the iceberg. It’s exciting and rewarding, but it’s a daunting task.
This year, I spent time in Russia, Turkey, Poland, the Middle East and Spain. People all over the world are dealing with intellectual disabilities that pose incredible challenges; the need is so enormous. There’s a great opportunity to make a difference, so I’m grateful for that. But it keeps you on a treadmill all the time, that’s for sure.
Cooper: Tell me about what’s happening with your gala.
Shriver: It’s going to be the biggest ball we’ve ever held. We’ll probably raise more than $3 million in one night, so we’re way ahead of where we’ve been in the past. We’re honoring Sheikha Moza, the first lady of Qatar. We’re giving her a Spirit of Leadership Award. We’re doing a lot of good things with Qatar, and programs that benefit people with disabilities are expanding in that country. We want to raise awareness about her highness’s work, not only in Qatar but in the Middle East as a whole. We hope that her leadership will inspire other people in her position—either with her wealth or influence— to make a difference. I met the Emir, Sheikh Hamad as well, talked to him and had dinner with him. He also seems very interested in getting other people to follow their lead in terms of educating and providing opportunities for people with disabilities in that part of the world, and in the world at large. That’s a huge goal.
The ball will also commemorate 20 years of holding this event at my parents’ home. It’s pretty unusual for an event like this to take place at a private home on this scale for 20 years straight. I think it’s a huge accomplishment that the organization has been able to make that happen, and keep the event engaging, motivating and inspiring enough for people to come back year after year. We have people who have been coming for 20 years. That means a lot to us. We’ve got additional support as a result of this event being our 20th anniversary. We’re going to have a great, diverse group from all walks of the world, and great representation from the Middle East. We’ve got some Buddy pairs coming from Qatar who are going to speak. We just relocated two people from the national office here to live in Qatar. I look forward to expanding to other countries in the Middle East with the guidance and support of the disability communities in those countries. I think it’s the beginning of something special.
Cooper: That’s great.
Shriver: Yeah, right now in Qatar, our people are training Qataris to run the program after they leave. So we’re getting a lot of traction there. We actually just met with people at Carnegie Mellon University, who want Best Buddies there. They are going to recruit a bunch of their students to be Buddies and escort people with intellectual disabilities to a museum once a month. We’re trying to get some corporate volunteers to do that once a month, as well.
Cooper: Have you heard about the ABILITY House?
Cooper: We build homes, usually in partnership with either Habitat for Humanity (HFH) or the Fuller Center for Housing, for families in which a member has a disability. Volunteers with disabilities build the homes.
Shriver: Great! That’s where we could use Best Buddies. Get the kids out there with their Buddies doing the homes.
Cooper: I just flew to North Carolina to start a house with Meredith College and Wake County HFH.
Shriver: Do you have the money to build multiple homes? Is that a struggle? Or do you do one at a time? How does it work?
Cooper: At the moment one at a time. Our challenge is finding funding and getting corporations to work with us. Like Habitat, we go through churches, foundations, corporations…
Shriver: I’d like to work it in somehow and try to do one for sure.
Cooper: We might look at a model in which we do it in conjunction with your affiliates around the country.
Shriver: That would be great. I’d like to do it. In the past, we’ve looked at doing something like that, as well at doing parks and similar projects. I just don’t want to be responsible for all the mechanics of it; I’d prefer to partner with somebody else. But I’ve definitely been wanting to do something like that for a while.
Cooper: Going back to the center in Qatar, what was your first thought when you visited initially?
Shriver: I thought it was remarkable that they’d made this huge commitment to deal with disabilities in such a small country. I’ve been to lots of countries with huge amounts of resources, but they’re not investing that kind of money into developing world-class facilities that focus on all forms of disabilities. So I think it’s an enormous reflection of Qatar’s values, and to have the First Lady so committed to it and interested in it, I think, is truly impressive and unique.
I continue to be impressed by what they’re doing: the programs they provide, the facility, and the expertise of the people there who are leading the facility. From the moment I got there, I was amazed at their efforts to expand the facility, so it can provide additional services.
Cooper: I was amazed too. It’s state of the art.
Shriver: For sure. I think Her Highness and her center have a commitment to excellence in every field they pursue. The more I get to know her and talk to her, the more I see the consistency of their approach in everything they do. I think the center is one aspect of it all, but from the sports facilities, the education facilities, the new equestrian facility that they’re building, their bid for the Olympics, the hotel they’re building, the resort, everything is first-class. So it’s great that they haven’t left out people with intellectual disabilities. Often nations, rich nations, look at that population last, not first. They’re establishing the blueprint for the country, where that group is right at the top of the list.
Cooper: Anything else you’d like to share?
Shriver: I have so many different things happening all over the world that I could go on forever. I don’t know even where to start.
Cooper: Do you work with Special Olympics?
Shriver: Definitely. As you know, my mom (Eunice Kennedy Shriver) started it and my brother (Timothy) runs it. We collaborate on various projects around the world, when it makes sense. We obviously work with the same population as well, but with a different focus.
Cooper: Do you have any specific programs in which Best Buddies are trained as athletes?
Shriver: There are different states and regions where it makes sense for the Buddy to become an athlete, or where we have athletes who want to mentor or Buddy. We do it where it works and where we’ve got the traction to do it.
Cooper: When did you start?
Shriver: 1989. Next year’s our 20th anniversary. Time flies.
Cooper: I think it’s great that some of your Buddies turn around and become mentors as well.
Shriver: It works nicely.
Cooper: Tell me more about your job program.
Shriver: I love helping people get jobs, helping them to get their own apartment, get married, have kids—it’s really remarkable. We want to give people with disabilities the opportunity to choose different types of jobs, not to have them all be in the service industries. If you want to have a white-collar job, you want to put a tie and a jacket on, that job should be available to you.
I’m sure you’ll agree that the skill sets that a lot of people with special needs have are remarkable, and they can really be an enormous asset to an employer in any office. I think for us to be able to share that knowledge with potential employers is a great gift. Once they accept it and get engaged in it, it’s an enormously important and motivating thing not only for their employees, but also for the leadership team in any office. So it’s something I’m proud to share, and I hope we’ll continue to expand it and get more people employed. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is huge. Imagine if that was the case for everybody; the whole country would be upside-down. But that’s how it is for people with intellectual disabilities. We get some good jobs in a lot of different cities, but we definitely need more. So again, we’ve got a lot of work to do.