Buddies give a little help to their friends

Everyone on campus needs a friend, and the newly organized Best Buddies club is there to make sure of it. The organization works to create one-on-one relationships between College students and mentally challenged children and adults in order to provide companionship and create long-lasting friendships.

Many of the “buddies” are paired with students from Career and Community Studies (CCS), a program that was created in 2005 and began operating in Fall 2006 in conjunction with the department of Special Education, Language & Literacy to provide higher education opportunities to disabled students.

As part of the program, students attend career building classes as well as integrated classes with the rest of the College community. Up to eight students are enrolled each year in the program, which in its second year has 14 students currently attending.

“Many of the students work on campus in the library media center and the gym. Though they have worked hard to gain these educational opportunities, like any other student it is hard to assimilate into college life,” Michelle Cornacchia, Best Buddies director, said. Best Buddies works to smooth this difficult transition for CCS students by providing social opportunities to ease the process of campus integration.

“Sometimes the relationships outside of class are even more important to these students than the classes themselves,” Rebecca Daley, professor of special education and coordinator of CCS, said. “The purpose is to create that relationship with adults with cognitive disabilities and age-appropriate peers.”

Best Buddies originated as a College club in 1996, but became inactive until Cornacchia and activities director of Best Buddies Elaine Smolen stepped in and revamped and revitalized the program in 2005 to coincide with the creation of CCS.

Daley explained that before the creation of CCS, there was a problem matching students on campus with disabled teens and adults off campus, due to lack of transportation and schedule conflicts, which caused the disintegration of the Best Buddies club.

“The match has been really perfect here, because now College students can interact with other College students on campus and this has erased that previous barrier,” she said.

Besides Princeton University, the College is the only higher education institution in New Jersey with a Best Buddies program, causing the chapter to work closely with a Maryland program affiliate. Similarly, CCS is one of only a handful of programs in the country that provides post-secondary education to disabled adults.

“Through Best Buddies we give the students the opportunity to meet more (College) students and form lasting friendships. We all learn from each other, and we have decided not to call each other buddies anymore, but just simply friends,” Cornacchia said.

Since there are 14 CCS students, there are 14 Best Buddies to be individually paired with each student, although Cornacchia explained that there are many Best Buddies members who attend events, but have not yet been matched with a CCS student.

To address this, the club may be joining forces and expanding with the Arc of Hunterdon County, which also fosters career and social opportunities for cognitively disabled adults and children.

The buddies meet up at least once a week for lunch, and some opt to spend this time at the gym or library. Cornacchia said that this interaction does not stop at a friendly lunch every now and then.

“We also talk on the phone, e-mail and we text each other all the time,” she said. The pairs truly become friends, and learn all there is to know about one another.

“Personally, every Monday I would get together with Brian and Joey for lunches, and since these two guys are the biggest Eagles fans in the world, this past season I always knew how the Eagles did depending on their moods,” Cornacchia said. “If they won, they had their Eagles shirts on playing songs from their Eagles key chains, but if they lost, it was like the worst day in the world.”

The club also organizes group activities for all the buddies, which includes game and movie nights, as well as holiday parties.

Last year, Best Buddies and CCS collaborated to organize a poetry slam in the Rathskeller that attracted a crowd of more than 60 people. Each CCS student performed and delighted the crowd with their creative abilities. Due to its success, another poetry slam is tentatively scheduled for March 27.

“I’m really proud of the College for having this (CCS) program, and I’m really proud of the (College) students who have really helped the CCS students become a part of this community,” Daley said.

Both Cornacchia and Daley stressed the need for more Best Buddies volunteers and CCS mentors. If interested, contact Cornacchia at cornacc2@tcnj.edu