The Best Buddies Challenge is breaking barriers and building friendships
“Friendship moves mountains.” It is by this tenet that Anthony Kennedy Shriver founded an internationally renowned organization committed to positivity, inclusivity and, indeed, friendship. Best Buddies has grown from its genesis at Georgetown University in 1989 to an engagement program dedicated to building positive connections, sponsoring employment opportunities and supporting leadership programs for intellectually challenged individuals across the globe.
“When you go into a workplace and see one of our participants getting full benefits, being part of a team and feeling like they count—knowing that person’s life is completely transformed because of our hard work is really rewarding and makes you feel like your life matters,” says Shriver. “That’s the power of Best Buddies.”
Shriver is no stranger to individuals with special talents. His aunt, Rosemary Kennedy, had profound intellectual disabilities, and his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the Special Olympics. “I was around this community for a long time through family and my mother’s work, and I learned a lot from having a relationship with someone with special abilities,” he says. “I thought sharing that opportunity and experience with other college kids while I was at Georgetown would be meaningful for them and for the people with special abilities.” Best Buddies started with 52 students at Georgetown. Today, the organization impacts over a million people with and without intellectual disabilities, with more than 2,500 chapters worldwide.
On Cape Cod, supporting Best Buddies is easy, fun and rewarding for everyone involved. Every summer, some 1,500 cyclists convene in Boston for Best Buddies Challenge: Hyannis Port, where they can choose to bike 20, 50 or 100 miles—with the longer ride ending in Hyannis Port. The event is supported by pro football players like Tom Brady and Julian Edelman, cyclists like Christian Vande Velde and George Hincapie, as well as other big names like Food Network star Guy Fieri, who hosts a cooking festival for the event. “I used to ride with my mother a lot on tandem bikes,” explains Shriver. “Sometimes she had illnesses, so I could pull her along, and I thought the concept of a tandem was great for buddy pairs. Then it grew beyond tandem bikes to individual cycling.”
If cycling isn’t appealing, participants have the option to run or walk a 5K at Craigville Beach, led by Olympian Carl Lewis, and there’s a celebration after the main events that includes even more celebrity guests, a concert on the beach, fun events and more. And since no Cape Cod celebration is quite complete without a lobster bake, that’s another highlight.
Kellie Howard was introduced to Best Buddies at the University of South Florida, and has been a dedicated and passionate advocate for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities ever since. “When I heard about the mission and the cause, I fell in love with it, and I’ve been dedicated since 2009,” she says. Today, Howard sits on the Best Buddies International Board of Directors and is a trained Buddy Ambassador, among other things.
As an ambassador, Howard has the opportunity to share her story at events across the country, including the one in Hyannis Port. “I actually have a speech impediment, so growing up I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone. My mom would talk for me. Now, I love public speaking,” explains Howard. “I love being an advocate for others who can’t speak up.”
Howard says she loves the social aspect of Best Buddies. “When my family calls for me, my mom always tells them I’m never home,” she says, laughing. Most importantly though, Howard says the organization has taught her the meaning of friendship. She wants people to know that “It’s about the buddies. The buddies are what make the program remarkable.” Howard will once again have the opportunity to spread that message this June on the Cape, where she’s excited to give her speech. “I like the lobsters,” she says with a giggle when asked if she enjoys Cape Cod. Surely, there will be a few participants there to welcome her who relate to that sentiment.
Cape Cod holds a special place in Shriver’s heart as well. “I grew up there every summer of my entire life. When I was born in July, I went directly from Boston to Hyannis Port,” he says. “I feel like I’m from Cape Cod.” The Best Buddies Challenge helps marry Shriver’s two loves. As he puts it, it’s about “enjoying the Cape Cod life, which is something very special, and serving young people in that community—getting them engaged in service, getting them to become more passionate, sympathetic and inclusive of all people, which I think is the kind of community people want to build in Massachusetts and on Cape Cod.”
For Shriver, the most rewarding part of Best Buddies is the buddies—the relationships he builds with them and the opportunities he has to witness them being successful, accepted and proud of their accomplishments. “I’m a big believer that through one-to-one contact of any sort—friendship, business, whatever it is—you can really get to know someone and respect them, even if they’re different from you,” says Shriver. The major initiatives of Best Buddies—building one-to-one connections, providing integrated employment opportunities, and giving individuals with intellectual disabilities a chance to develop their voices and have them heard through leadership training—are all on display during the event in June. “We’re able to showcase the talents of our special needs population, whether they’re riding 100 miles, or giving a speech, or feeling more included in the community because of the event or through the event. I think those things are all super beneficial,” Shriver says.
“I hope that the day will come somewhere in the near future where an organization like Best Buddies isn’t really needed, that jobs and employment services are provided naturally because employers recognize the great value that people with special abilities bring to any workforce,” says Shriver. “I think the goal for every nonprofit should be to solve the issue that they’re working on today and shut their doors.” The goal for Best Buddies is an inclusive, integrated community where the opportunities and support provided are internationally consistent, where the need for sensitivity and respect has been met—and the Best Buddies Challenge that ends in Hyannis Port is one major step toward that goal.