Program bonds Best Buddies

A Whitman student's efforts bring an international friendship program to the state for the first time.

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From left, Meg Robinson, Mary Ellen Valenscin, Marika Lou and Heather Rubin dance at a Best Buddies event at Reid Campus Center at Whitman college.

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Heather Rubin and Meg Robinson, (Whitman student).

Rachel Kutcher is so ready to get this party started.

The 19-year-old McLoughlin High School student is a holiday vision in her twirly crimson skirt and candy-cane-striped top.

Kutcher had stationed herself near the cookie table in the ballroom at the Reid Campus Center at Whitman College in Walla Walla with her buddy, Gabriela Kaus.

"I like to dance," Kutcher announces, flinging an arm around Kaus' shoulders. The two nibble frosted, sugary trees and watch a group of boys on the other side of the softly-lit room as pop rock booms around the ceiling.

The boys, being boys, mill aimlessly in a clump of sweaters and sneakers.

Garbed in her own pretty party dress, Kaus is here, actually, as Kutcher's "best" buddy.

"Best Buddies" in Walla Walla is the first of its type in Washington state. The international nonprofit created a global volunteer movement that supports one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Founded in 1989 by Anthony Kennedy Shriver, Best Buddies has grown from the original chapter to almost 1,500 middle school, high school and college chapters worldwide, according to the agency's website.

Filling a void

Yet it's not everywhere, Michaela Lambert discovered. The Whitman sophomore arrived in Walla Walla from her hometown of Napa, Calif., where she had participated in the program since her high school freshman year.

"I assumed there would be (Best Buddies) here. I did some research after going to the Whitman activities fair and finding out it wasn't. I found out it doesn't exist in the state of Washington."

Lambert approached the organization to start a local chapter. With its approval, she contacted officials with the local Parent to Parent program, facilitated by Walla Walla County.

Parent to Parent helps guide moms and dads of children with special needs from birth to adulthood through information sessions, activities, peer groups and emotional support.

The Walla Walla program also offers a support group for parents of adult children with developmental disabilities, facilitated by retired county employee and mother of a grown-up son with special needs, Carla Nibler.

That's the group Lambert approached, she said. "I asked the parents there what they wanted to see and what was missing from the community."

What she heard is that once special-needs children leave the public school system at age 21 or before, opportunities to connect with other adults outside their families often drop.

Armed with that information, Lambert, 19, got the word out on campus to see who might be interested in changing things up. "I waited to see how many would sign up and go through training before I gave that number to Carla."

Best Buddies is not intended to be a mentor program for the buddy, nor a "resume-building" effort for the college buddy, Lambert pointed out. "It's about forming a true friendship."

Her first effort this year has paired 19 students with 19 special-needs adults. "I've been so impressed with the support from both the Whitman community and Parent to Parent," the biology major said. "The college students here have really grabbed onto the program. They go out of their way to honor their commitment of meeting their buddy at least once a week."

A number of the college students do more, inviting their new friends out to dinner, calling on the phone and bringing them on campus for walks, she added. "I don't see that the Whitman students are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they want to have true friendships."

Benefits beyond buddies

It's not just the buddies benefitting, said Shelly Rubin.

She and a number of other parents have brought their adult children to the holiday dance, then sought out the company of each other in the Reid Campus Center cafe.

Inside the ballroom, Rubin's daughter Heather, 40, is dancing away with her college buddy, sophomore Meg Robinson.

The sequin-jacketed and shiny-haired Heather, Shelly notes with a grin, has fussed over an outfit for the dance since this morning. "She had it all laid out on the bed."

Since October, Heather and Robinson have baked and bowled together in addition to the larger group activities, which Heather has found to be "very cool," Shelly adds. "It's definitely a positive thing."

Parents were a little cautious of the program in the beginning, she says.

That quickly dissolved, however, as the college buddies jumped in with such enthusiasm. "I think it's pure enjoyment."

Robinson's friendship gives Heather what every adult longs for - the chance to socialize independently without a parent and an opportunity "not to feel disabled, but to be an ‘abled' person with other ‘abled' people," Shelly explains. "To be a young woman having fun."

Across the table, Phyllis Pullen agrees. "I'm so excited that Michaela got it going. We're firm believers in inclusion, getting them out in public. And we don't have to do it all ourselves."

Her two youngest, Kate, 23, and Evan, 20, have Behr Syndrome. It's host of effects include blindness, spastic cerebral palsy, seizure disorder and cognitive impairment, Pullen explains. "And they're incredibly cute."

The brother and sister have reveled in the friendship program, she says. "The kids just share and share, over and over again" about what their college buddies did and said. "Both best buddies have emailed our kids, asked how they're doing, how their Thanksgiving was."

In the darkened ballroom, Andrew Patel, a sophomore, is doing a sort of jogging dance in a circle around his buddy, Matthew Farr.

Farr, 19, is dressed for a party in a newsboy cap, black sweater and classic plaid Vans. Nonetheless, the young man seems uncertain about the crowd and noise. Patel responds by keeping their celebration semi-private, staying mostly in one corner of the ballroom and stepping out when the music becomes too much for the moment. Which seems fine to Farr - "We talk about all sorts of things," Patel says.

In the meantime, some buddy pairs are at the craft table, creating Christmas wreaths with florets of green tissue paper and tiny, glittery presents. Evan Pullen is excited, reaching for his buddy's hand. Ryan Lutz, a senior at the college, gently squeezes back.

This, he says, is a great time. "I came from a high school that was very service oriented. That was what interested me about this," Lutz notes, keeping a close eye on an enthusiastic Pullen. "I think kids in college are looking for a way to give back and this provides that opportunity."

By the end of the night, almost everyone is out on the floor and shimmying with abandon. Some shuffle, some circle the perimeter, some leap. All smile.

It's up to Lambert to close down the joy. "Thanks for much for coming out tonight," she says, smiling in every direction. "This is the last time before next semester, so say goodbye to your buddy."

The lights come up, the depleted cookie trays get stacked and parents reclaim their children. Heather Rubin rushes to her father, Steve Rubin, and wraps him in a hug.

"Did you have a good time," he asks, smiling down at her upturned face, seeing the answer in her happy grin.

Lambert would like to see more adults with developmental disabilities have that smile, she said later. If Best Buddies does well at Whitman College, ideally it will spread to other area colleges, other buddies, she predicts. "There are plenty more who could benefit."

For more information contact Lambert at lambermm@whitman.edu or Walla Walla County's Parent to Parent program at 524-2920.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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