Two Cal State Fullerton students recently brought Best Buddies International to campus to give students the opportunity to create deeper connections by pairing them with those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The nonprofit organization seeks to create bonds, build confidence and simply help improve the quality of life for those with and without disabilities according to their website. The international program’s members range from middle school to college students.
Co-presidents Brianna Stempniak and Valerie Schlieder of CSUF’s Best Buddies see the club as more than volunteering.
Stempniak, a third-year biology major, has been a part of Best Buddies International since her freshman year of high school. During her senior year, she found a lifelong friendship with her buddy who has down syndrome, creating fond memories of hanging out at the park.
“She’s nonverbal, but we’re very close friends to this day. We have a different way of communicating, and she is one of my best friends,” Stempniak said.
She took initiative to start the program at CSUF in fall 2017 and filled out a tedious amount of paperwork, sought approvals and fulfilled all requirements just in time to become a registered club on campus before the spring semester began.
Schlieder, a third-year kinesiology major, said that her life has been changed by one particular buddy named Linzey Borrelli. Six years ago, her older sister met Borrelli, who has Down syndrome, through her high school’s Best Buddies program during her senior year. Schlieder’s family offered Borrelli additional opportunities to develop new strengths and skills.
“They’re very isolated sometimes, and they stick to their own people with disabilities, their own friends, because the world doesn’t always accept them. This club really makes it feel like you are worthy of having a friendship just like everybody else,” Schlieder said. “We all can’t imagine our lives without a solid friend, but for them, that’s a lot of their realities – to not have someone who reaches out and wants to do things with them.”
Schlieder and Borrelli now refer to each other as sisters.
Together, Stempniak and Schlieder’s passion was enough motivation to add CSUF to the 16 college chapters already participating within California.
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A colorful booth at Discoverfest included a trade of free candy for an Instagram follow, and they gained over 100 new member sign-ups. Schlieder said it was an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment for the co-presidents, as several students happily walked up to the booth and recognized Best Buddies, glad to see that a branch is finally offered on campus.
All of the buddies are from La Sierra High School’s Adult Transition Program. CSUF students, referred to as peer buddies, are the club members who are specifically matched for one-on-one friendships. Associate buddies, or students who are not paired with a specific buddy, are encouraged to participate in their monthly club socials.
The club suggests that peer buddies hang out with their buddy at least once a month to build a strong and genuine friendship. Members are also encouraged to find out what makes their buddy come out of their shell and what puts a smile on their faces.
Respect is a big part of the club’s values and expectations. The program wants peer buddies to be proud to show off their friendships.
Kyra Cummings, a child and adolescent development major, attended the club’s first meeting Friday.
“I’m most excited about getting a chance to work with a buddy and getting a chance to work with a person with disabilities and get their perspective of how they see the world,” Cummings said.
During the meeting, the club went over its expectations, calendar and future goals.
The club presidents and officers of Best Buddies CSUF foremost plan to represent people with disabilities.
“They’re intentional, they’re caring, if you don’t answer your phone, they’ll make sure you’re okay. They’ll call again and again and again, and at first it’s very overwhelming,” Schlieder said. “People with disabilities don’t hold back their feelings. They’re open about what they feel, they’re open about how they feel about you, and it’s so beautiful.”