Photo courtesy of Trevor Bexon  Volunteers gathered at the Best Buddies Friendship Walk fundraiser on Saturday, Nov. 8. Best Buddies is a nonprofit organization that matches  volunteers and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to promote social inclusion.

Photo courtesy of Trevor Bexon
Volunteers gathered at the Best Buddies Friendship Walk fundraiser on Saturday, Nov. 8. Best Buddies is a nonprofit organization that matches volunteers and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to promote social inclusion.

By Jennifer Marbley

University of Nevada, Reno students and community volunteers gathered at the first Northern Nevada Best Buddies Friendship Walk to take a step toward increasing social inclusion on Saturday, Nov. 8. Jason Smith, state director for Best Buddies’ Nevada chapter, addressed a crowd of participants at the Sparks Marina to celebrate the walk as a symbol of unity for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He said that volunteers were investing in the community by donating to events such as the Friendship Walk.

Best Buddies seeks to promote opportunities for social interaction for people with disabilities by promoting friendship, leadership and employment. During the Friendship Walk, registered teams participated in a 2-mile walk along the Sparks marina to raise both funding and awareness in the Reno community. The organization raised $7,000 of its $15,000 fundraising goal to help develop new Best Buddies programs in Reno.

All proceeds from T-shirt sales went to fundraising for Best Buddies. The event was additionally sponsored by The Ferraro Group, Atlantis Casino Resort and Spa and the Reno Aces Ballpark.

Best Buddies membership is available for individuals from middle school through college. According to Smith, school can be particularly difficult for those with developmental disabilities. He said that school can be a segregating and isolating experience and that many disabled people aren’t equipped with the social skills necessary to succeed in getting jobs. Smith said that bullying is also prevalent for students with disabilities and can crush self-confidence.

“Bullying is a big deal, but what people don’t know is that the bulk of people who get bullied are people with disabilities,” Smith said.

The UNR Best Buddies Chapter helped organize the event to raise funds for the nonprofit organization. Senior Melissa Osorio, president of UNR’s Best Buddies Chapter, worked with Smith to start the club last year. According to Osorio, research shows that most individuals interact with about 50 people a day, while individuals in the Best Buddies program interact with about three. Her goal is to create one-to-one friendships with student volunteers and people with developmental disabilities in order to make more connections in the community.

“I think it’s important for [disabled people] to be out in our community, because there is that stigma against them,” Osorio said. “That’s what we’re trying to stop here. A lot of the buddies only have contact with their parents or doctors. Nobody wants to be alone.”

Osorio partnered with sophomore Natasha Price, who has a developmental disability, last year. Because of the program, Price gets to help out in the community, meet new people and participate in events such as the Friendship Walk.

The Best Buddies UNR Chapter has over 30 members, with 11 buddies paired with student volunteers. They have bimonthly meetings and host social events such as attending Aces’ baseball games, having potlucks and hosting a pajama parties at the Best Buddies office. Volunteers meet with a buddy at least twice a month to do a social activity and communicate a minimum of once per week. Osorio said that her experience with Best Buddies has made her more compassionate towards others.

“I think [Best Buddies] definitely made me a better friend,” Osorio said. “It makes me more considerate of what other people are saying. You look at the world in a different perspective. You value friendships more and the little things.”

Osorio encouraged other UNR students to get involved in the Best Buddies Friendship Walk, including Senior Leo Yang, a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity on campus. According to Yang, he encouraged his entire fraternity to support the nonprofit after he had a rewarding experience volunteering with a buddy.

Yang became involved with Best Buddies in spring 2014 after Osorio recommended that he volunteer. He was paired with a buddy who had Down syndrome and they shared an interest in movies. Yang said the experience was fun because he did something positive for him and his buddy.

“I’m happy I joined Best Buddies because it made me realize that everyone’s different, but everyone should be accepted,” Yang said.

Jennifer Marbley can be reached at jmarbley@sagebrush.unr.edu and on Twitter @MissMarbley.