I had the privilege to chat with Joe about his experience at the Best Buddies Leadership conference and couldn’t wait to share my interview with him. I hope you are as encouraged by him as I am.
How was the conference?
“Awesome. Best Buddies has so much support nationally and internationally; the magnitude is amazing. 52 countries participated and 1,800 kids attended (University of Indiana). The key note speaker was Lauren Potter, one of the stars of the show Glee. She has Down Syndrome. She said that all her life she dreamt of being an actress, and everyone told her she couldn’t do it. She said ‘Look at me now, I’m on a hit show. So to those who say you can’t, you can!’ She inspired us to do what we dream and she’s an inspiration to kids with disabilities. Amazing!”
Why Best Buddies?
“When I would see the kids in the life-skills class at school (McDowell) I noticed they had no friends outside of class. It didn’t seem right. But, before that spending time at the BNI and seeing how kids with disabilities just wanted friends or to be included and how simply listening to their story made them feel valuable. Plus, spending time with Ryan. Ryan wants a friend and he’s taught me a lot. Honestly, everyone wants friends or to be included. Why not work with an organization that focuses on friendships especially for kids who are overlooked as “worthy” friends just because they have a disability.”
Tell me about your chapter at McDowell:
“This is the first Best Buddies Chapter in Northwest PA and the only one in the area. The closest chapter to us is in Pittsburgh. We are a pilot site. If this works, then Best Buddies would expand to other schools.”
You start your junior year this fall as the Chapter President. What are your goals for the year?
“Well, currently we have 19 kids in the chapter. Our official match (when we are paired with a buddy) happens in September. I’m looking forward to that happening first. Second is to increase awareness, especially with the Spread the Word to End the “R” Word campaign at McDowell. Third, I’d like to have a combined party with another group in school, like the Spanish club. We could partner together which would integrate students meeting each other in a fun way.”
What, if anything, did you learn about advocacy?
“Advocating is the core. It’s giving a voice to all kids with disabilities, showing typical kids it’s ok to be friends and, ultimately, being a friend and not an enemy.”
Being a buddy is all about giving back. Tell me what you get in return.
“The biggest reward is simply the excitement on my buddy’s face when I walk in the room and say hi to him. Just being there, with him, treating him as a person and seeing his face light up…amazing.”
What’s the biggest hurdle for students or kids who don’t volunteer to overcome?
“I think most high school students don’t know how hard and different school is for someone with a disability, whether physical or intellectual. Helping typical kids see life through another’s eye through something like being a friend is the biggest challenge. But once they do, they get an amazing friend and the student with a disability gets a true friend, value and acceptance to be their self.”
What’s a challenge for your chapter?
“Fundraising. I learned a lot of good ideas for fundraising and advocacy from the conference. Fundraising is hard, especially when there are so many good organizations out there. But, doing a Friendship Walk in Erie is one idea. The Friendship Walk is one of Best Buddies most well-known fundraisers. So I’d like to work to start one here in Erie. Doing a “Wing-Off” where it’s teachers vs. students in a chicken wing eating competition and donations are how you vote.”
What can our community do to support you and your schoolmates?
“In order for us as students to make a difference we need community members and leaders to support us by helping us spread the word. They can also volunteer to donate food, let us take the group bowling for free or donate transportation for us to attend the Best Buddies Ball in Pittsburgh. This is the biggest event of the year. It’s like a prom for kids with disabilities and their buddies. It would be amazing if we could attend that event! But, our biggest need is an advisory board. These would be 12 community members or leaders who would help us with advocacy and fundraising. We need the advisory board to help establish us in Erie.”
Tell me your long term goals.
“First to have a lifelong friend. Second is to attend college and hopefully there is a Best Buddies chapter there to continue the streak. Ultimately, either through law or other options, I want to advocate for those with disabilities. I want to do something with my life that makes a difference for them.”
Joe and his friends are leading the charge for our community. They are the change agents we need for the future of children and adults with disabilities. Joe saw something that didn’t seem right and is doing something about it. He sought answers to make something better for someone else even though it’s hard work. He reminds us, as Lauren Potter reminded him, “To those who say you can’t — You can!”
You can support the Best Buddies chapter by contacting Joe at JBPINTO77@GMAIL.COM