Author: Ryan Wirth, Deputy Director, Expansion Programs, Best Buddies
We sat down with Ryan Wirth, Deputy Director, Expansion Programs for nationwide disability organization Best Buddies to learn more about how they support the disability community. Read on for an inside look at Best Buddies’ outreach and personal growth programming, and be sure to watch the sweet videos that Ryan mentions throughout the interview.
What is Best Buddies’ mission?
Best Buddies International is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to establishing a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment, leadership development and inclusive living for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Best Buddies offers multiple different programs to meet our mission.
What are some examples of the ways your organization supports the disability community in Alabama?
In Alabama, we currently have seven school friendship chapters that meet our mission of one-to-one friendships and leadership development for students with and without IDD. These seven chapters are spread across the state and include chapters at Auburn University, University of Alabama, Madison City Schools, University of Alabama at Birmingham and University of Montevallo. The chapter at University of Alabama has even hosted their own Ambassador training, which aims to grow the self-advocacy ability of participants with and without IDD in our programs.
In addition to these school friendship chapters, individuals with IDD in Alabama are able to participate in our e-Buddies program, an online pen pal program that pairs individuals with IDD and those without.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
There are many different aspects that are rewarding, but I think one of the most energizing and rewarding aspects of my role in Best Buddies is the ability to be a part of our annual Best Buddies Leadership Conference each July (BBLC). BBLC, as it is commonly referred to by our volunteers and staff, brings together nearly 2,500 individuals with and without IDD each July on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington, Indiana. Everyone is there for one reason that weekend and that is to celebrate the inclusion of those with IDD. When you walk into the Indiana University Auditorium each day, you get hit with this incredible amount of excitement, energy and happiness. The atmosphere of this weekend-long conference is amazing!
Beyond the atmosphere of the weekend, volunteers also come together to attend job seminars and sessions, learn about Best Buddies and how to implement programs in their schools and work to develop speeches to take home and advocate for themselves and others with IDD. It is truly wonderful! Check out this awesome YouTube video for more about last year’s BBLC.
Do you have any uplifting stories of interactions, or special times at Best Buddies events, that you can share?
It is difficult to pick out just one instance. I think one of the most uplifting moments that I have experienced in my time with Best Buddies, though, occurred at BBLC two years ago. During the closing ceremonies of the event, four or five Ambassadors that just went through the trainings at BBLC had the opportunity to share their story on stage. One of the most memorable stories was from Jack Mayor, from Neuqua Valley High School, west of Chicago. The story he shared was incredibly inspiring to many, including myself. Check it out for yourself here.
How can others get involved in your initiatives and help Best Buddies grow in Alabama? Are there any upcoming events that we should be aware of?
Alabama does not currently have a state office, but we have a team of staff dedicated to the growth of our programming, and we also have state offices specifically working with volunteers to fundraise the necessary funds to open the state office and impact as many individuals with and without IDD across the state.
If you have interest in getting involved, whether that is opening a chapter at your school or starting the Expansion Board in your state, or just learning more about Best Buddies, we ask that you reach out to Alabama@bestbuddies.org.