October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and students at the University of Maine are celebrating everyone for their individuality.
Best Buddies is a campus club that may not be well-known, but it has just as much significance as other clubs. The club takes UMaine students and pairs them with another person who isn’t from UMaine — someone who is disabled in some way — and fosters friendships that can last a lifetime.
Different forms of autism, learning disabilities, blindness and mental illnesses are accepted at Best Buddies. One disability within the Best Buddies program that is more commonly known and seen is down syndrome.
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder of the human chromosome 21, which causes developmental and intellectual delays. Between 200,000 and 3 million people in the U.S. are diagnosed with Down syndrome each year, according to the Mayo Clinic.
According to the organization’s website, Best Buddies was founded in 1989 by Anthony Shriver as a nonprofit dedicated to creating one-on-one friendships, and making jobs and developing leadership skills for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and delays. Best Buddies organizations are all over the world, and UMaine happens to have the only Best Buddies organization in the state.
At UMaine, the Best Buddies program accepts all walks of life.
“Best Buddies is the place I feel most accepted. It showed me my problems aren’t as bad as they could be. It really helps me realize that there are so many other ways to look at life,” Adya Plourde, a second-year political science and women’s, gender and sexuality studies student, and Vice President of the UMaine chapter of Best Buddies, said.
Although this is Plourde’s second year working with the Best Buddies Program, it is her first year in a leadership role, and she says she loves every second of it.
“We are typically the second hand man, though I prefer woman, to the president. I love our cabinet because we all share equal responsibility. Without the support of them, work would be hard to get done. Though everyone has a separate role, we are a well-functioning machine,” Plourde said.
The Best Buddies come from all over, some even coming to see their buddies at UMaine from hours away.
“We are thankful for their parents and their contributions and their support and, without them, we wouldn’t be able to have this club,” Plourde said.
Anybody can be a part of the program, regardless of major or age. To be part of the club, there is an application, but it isn’t like an average job application. Best Buddies uses this application to pair members with a specific buddy and to see if the program is the right fit for them, although no one is denied access to the club.
“My buddy, Tiffany, is wheelchair-bound and she also has some dietary issues. My buddy lives in a group home and we do stuff together like baking and playing cards. She’s just so great,” Plourde said.
Plourde said some of the skills required are patience, tolerance, acceptance and emotional support.
“Be willing to see them as a friend and be emotionally supportive for them, because they will do the same thing for you times eight. Be encouraging for real friendships. Don’t do it just to have it on your resume. Have your heart be in the right place,” Plourde said.