Monica Modi ’06 and Everett Buell are buddies. They attend Yale basketball games, go bowling, and celebrate Halloween together.
It is like any friendship, except that Buell is 35 years older than Modi. Buell is also mentally challenged.
The two are part of the Yale chapter of the Best Buddies International, a non-profit organization that aims to enrich the lives of those with mental disabilities through one-on-one friendships with students.
The program is designed to attract students willing to commit to a mentally-challenged buddy with similar interests. Since its founding in 1989, Best Buddies has grown from one original chapter at Georgetown University to more than 1,000 chapters at schools across the country and abroad. Additionally, Best Buddies has recently instituted a Citizens Program which allows interested New Haven residents to volunteer.
Jackie Wong ’04, a student volunteer in the program, said Best Buddies helps create friendships among those who need friendships the most. In many cases, mentally challenged participants — called “buddies” — do not live close to their families, and they do not have many friends.
“We give them the opportunities to feel more integrated into society. In addition, it lets us see other parts of society besides the people around us at Yale,” she said.
Buddies have varying abilities and lifestyles. Most hold jobs. One works in a video store, and two others work at chair factories. Some buddies live in assisted-living programs, and others live in their own apartments. All live with roommates and have caretakers to check up on them.
“I would consider [my buddy] like any normal 55 year-old, like a grandfather. He likes going to sports events. He really likes eating, like all the buddies — eating pizza together,” Modi said.
Most students in Best Buddies meet individually with their buddies twice a month. Once a month, all the buddies come together for a group activity. Past activities have included basketball, bowling, and cooking.
“We just try to bring them to sports events on campus, and otherwise show them some things of life that they don’t see on their own,” Modi said.
Many Yale students involved with the program said it fosters a feeling of friendship rather than a sense of obligation towards their buddies.
“Our friendship is like any other friendship,” Wong said about her buddy Laura. “It’s grown out of the time we’ve spent together. Laura is a very loyal friend, and she’s there to talk whenever I want. Similarly I’m there to talk whenever she wants.”
Best Buddies hosted a Thanksgiving dinner and celebration the week before Yale students left for Thanksgiving break.
“We cooked two turkeys and all the sides. The buddies helped a lot with the cooking. We also had to take into account certain things, like that some people are diabetic,” Modi said.
Best Buddies has recently started a new project called e-Buddies, which assists mentally-challenged people in communicating to each other through e-mail.
“They become pen pals,” Modi said. “Even though many buddies don’t have the abilities to type, they work through a mediator who helps them communicate their thoughts. The program also exposes buddies to technology and the Internet.”