Through simple acts of friendship, Best Buddies changes lives.
Best Buddies is an international organization founded to promote friendships between volunteers and people with disabilities. And, now, the movement has arrived at UT. Lucy Phillips, a sophomore in advertising, co-founded the UT chapter of Best Buddies last year.
"With gaining more social experiences, we have seen a significant difference in the buddies' confidence," Phillips said. "They are all surrounded by people that truly want them to succeed and are cheering them on in every aspect in life."
After encountering the local chapter of Best Buddies in her hometown, Phillips, alongside fellow UT student and high school friend Sara Parker, decided to bring Best Buddies to UT.
Since its inception in 1989, the organization has grown to a world-wide network of approximately 1,700 chapters. The Best Buddies college programs strives to give students with intellectual and developmental disabilities an inclusive campus experience by initiating personal relationships between the IDD students and college volunteers.
Phillips and Parker, co-president and vice president respectively, sought advice from UT's Future program (LINK: http://futureut.utk.edu) and the Special Education Department before connecting with Megan Thomas, a freshman in special education and co-president of UT's chapter.
Once the club began recruiting members in August, interested students were paired with a "buddy" based on the results of an online survey and an interview. Best Buddies at UT has received an outpouring of support from students, already boasting 94 members. Ten of those members of are students with IDD.
Phillips, Thomas and Parker agreed that navigating certain aspects of the relationship can prove challenging.
"They're adults and they do have their independence," Parker said. "But at the same time they do rely on their parents a little bit, so it is kind of a tricky situation to make sure that everyone is aware of what is going on."
Despite obstacles, the leaders of Best Buddies at UT have striven to form lasting friendships.
Parker, a sophomore in biomedical engineering, said she and her "buddy" have bonded over many mutual characteristics.
"We just are really similar people," Parker said. "We have a lot of stuff in common. She talks a lot; I talk a lot. It's been a really good dynamic."
Phillips said she views her Best Buddies partnership as any other relationship between friends.
"She loves Selena Gomez, so that has been kind of fun for me, (to listen) to that kind of music again," Phillips said. "We go to McAlister's in Thompson-Boling and chat kind of like what I do with any other one of my friends."
Phillips said she hopes in the future the UT chapter can foster partnerships with other Knoxville groups that support those with disabilities and increase Best Buddies' visibility in the community, shedding light on what she sees as an underrepresented student group.
While Best Buddies, as a supplement to special education, is aimed at preparing adults with IDD to enter the workforce, involvement with the organization has also acted as a training ground for its volunteer members.
Thomas expressed a desire to continue her involvement with Best Buddies though the organization's adult programs as a special education teacher, and Parker said she hopes to one day attend medical school or work in rehab engineering, where she has seen need for improvement in the treatment of persons with special needs.
"I think being able to see and interact with people that have these disabilities, it kind of opens your eyes in ways that you know this industry can change and in ways where I can hopefully find ways that I can fix it," Parker said. "I see where their problems are and what they struggle doing sometimes, and it is a really good experience for me because it has opened my eyes to what I can hopefully ... change."
Looking toward life after college, Phillips said she hopes to continue her involvement with Best Buddies and people with special needs in the future.
"I just have a huge heart for kids with disabilities," Phillips said. "So I think whatever I end up doing I do want to either have that as a job focus or at least volunteering later on in life."
Phillips said the joy she gains when working with individuals with IDD is what motivates her to continue working with them.
"I truly feel like I was making a difference in someone's life," Phillips said. "But at the same time they are making an even bigger impact on my life.
"When you know someone really well, all you see is the person; the disability goes away."