By Janelle Morrison
Nearly 18 years ago, Mary Delaney was sitting at home watching the “Today Show” with her infant daughter, Meghan, who has Down syndrome. It piqued Delaney’s interest when the show featured a promo for Best Buddies International, an organization that consists of volunteers who create opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She called the national headquarters and subsequently connected with David Quilleon, now the senior vice president, Major Gifts, Mission & Operations, for Best Buddies International. The two conversed over a period of three years on how to establish an office and begin chapters in Indiana.
The first hurdle was to raise $100,000. Delaney was a board member for Down Syndrome Indiana along with Angela Touseull, who launched Indiana’s first Buddy Walk in the fall of 1998 that raised more than $30,000. The DSI board decided to donate, from its proceeds, the funds to host a fundraiser and raise the money needed to open a local Best Buddies office. The concept of a Black and White Ball was created, and that would become the primary annual fundraiser for Best Buddies of Indiana.
Utilizing her resources and connections in the not-for-profit world, Delaney and her supporters raised $72,000 at their first gala, and Down Syndrome Indiana donated the remaining $28,000 to meet their goal. Overcoming multiple challenges along the way, Best Buddies Indiana was established in 2001, and Delaney served as its first board president.
Originally founded by Anthony K. Shriver, the chairman of Best Buddies International, the organization was created in 1989 to foster one-to-one friendships between people with and without intellectual disabilities. Shriver is the son of the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of the Special Olympics; the brother of Maria Shriver; and the nephew of the late John F. Kennedy. Under Shriver’s leadership, Best Buddies International is a vibrant organization that has grown from one original chapter to almost 1,700 middle school, high school and college chapters worldwide.
Delaney spoke about the progress that the local office has made since its inception in 2001.
“We started out by hiring a state director and one program manager, and that’s what we had for three years,” says Delaney. “We focused on hosting the gala as our predominant fundraiser. We were able to write grants, hired another program manager and opened more chapters. In the beginning, we were practically begging schools to open chapters, and today we have a waiting list. Best Buddies will not open new chapters until we have the proper resources and program directors in place.”
Advocacy and awareness of the Best Buddies programs offered at the middle school, high school and college levels are ongoing initiatives for the local BBI board.
“We are continuing to open middle school chapters along with the high school and college chapters that we started with,” Delaney stated. “Westfield, Zionsville and Carmel high schools were among the first high school chapters and Indiana University was one of the first colleges to come on board.”
Today there are more than 20 Indiana middle schools, nearly 50 high schools and 16 colleges that have active Best Buddies chapters. Since 1995, Best Buddies schools and colleges have paired students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in one-to-one friendships with peer students. In the past, individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities have not had the opportunity to have friends outside of their own special education classroom. Best Buddies college programs also offer volunteers a unique opportunity to develop leadership skills. With the support of school faculty and Best Buddies staff, students with intellectual and developmental disabilities lead and direct the chapters in their schools.
The 13th annual Best Buddies Indiana Black and White Ball will be held Saturday, March 1, at D’Amore, located on top of the Chase Tower in downtown Indianapolis. The ball raises funds to maintain and expand BBI’s existing programs and advocacy. Guests will experience a spectacular evening featuring live and silent auctions, a gourmet dinner, a complimentary martini bar, live entertainment, and an opportunity to meet some inspiring Buddy Pairs and the incredible team of individuals who make up the Best Buddies of Indiana organization.
For more information on Best Buddies of Indiana, visit bestbuddiesindiana.org, and for ticket or sponsorship information regarding the Black and White Ball, visit bestbuddiesindiana.org/ball.
Ethan Sickels and John Joest are Best Buddies at Clay Middle School. Although they have been friends since their elementary days, they became “official” Best Buddies last year — the inaugural year for the Best Buddies program at Clay. Ethan, who is the president of the Clay chapter of the organization, has an older brother with autism and Down’s syndrome at Carmel High School. His brother’s experience with Best Buddies got Ethan interested in it, and he decided to start a chapter at the middle school level. The program has grown significantly in just one year.
“Last year, since it was our first year, we had like 30 kids involved. This year, there are about 125,” Ethan explains. Ethan’s mom, Jane Sickels, says Ethan grew up helping take care of his older brother and sees the benefit of the program. “He has always been a caring kid,” she says of Ethan.
Ethan and John enjoy doing many activities together, including attending club-sponsored after-school events, getting together to watch Pacers games, going cosmic bowling, hanging out at the mall and going to Friday night youth group functions at their church. Over the summer, they even started a food truck/concession stand at Ethan’s dad’s car dealership. They sell hot dogs, chips and drinks to dealership employees and customers. All proceeds go to the Clay Best Buddies program.
Having had two other boys go through Carmel Clay schools, John’s dad, Jerry Joest, says Carmel has been a great place to raise a family. But with John’s disability, he worried a little bit more about John’s ability to make friends, and even the potential for bullying. Instead, he feels that John’s peers include him and look out for him, and that the Best Buddies program is partially responsible for this inclusive environment.
Ethan, who has attended leadership conferences for Best Buddies International, plans to stay involved with the organization. He would like to implement the program at the elementary schools that feed into Clay Middle School. He believes this will make the transition from elementary into middle school easier for kids with disabilities. He also hopes to potentially start the Best Buddies program at University High School, where he will be attending next year.
Best Buddies friendships often do not end after school is over. Brad Worrell and Brian von Eiff met through the Best Buddies program at Carmel High School in 2005 during Brad’s junior year. They started by casually getting together once a week. Brad explains, “Our friendship started off pretty simply but eventually expanded to eating lunch together at school, hanging out by Brian’s pool, playing basketball and going to Steak n’ Shake, among a lot of other things.” Brad suggests that what is unique about their friendship is the simplicity and the ability to just be themselves and not feel they have to be something they are not.
Ted von Eiff, Brian’s dad, says the relationship has had a big impact on Brian. He points out that many kids with intellectual challenges have a harder time making friends because communication can be difficult, causing many peers to give up on trying to make a connection. Best Buddies addresses this issue by bringing peers together in a more structured way. He says the relationship with Brad “opened up a lot of doors for Brian by helping him gain confidence and skills he could carry into other friendships.”
However, it is not just the intellectually challenged in the pair that benefits from this unique relationship. Von Eiff says the relationship is helpful for both involved, as there are valuable life lessons to be learned from each other. Although Brad now lives and works in Chicago, he and Brian make it a point to connect whenever Brad is back in Carmel.
Brad says, “After nine years of friendship, the basic formula for why it is so successful stays the same: We just like to have fun and be goofy.” The pair was nominated for and won the Volvo for Life Friendship Award, which led them to an awards show in New York City, a bike race in Hyannis Port, Mass., and leadership conferences and speaking engagements throughout the state. Brad is still involved with the Best Buddies organization, and he and Brian hope to attend the 2014 Best Buddies Indiana Black and White Ball on March 1.
A documentary about their friendship can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=10dbcvCqXkA.