Everyone needs a friend, particularly people whose disabilities may leave them feeling isolated and alone. Enter Best Buddies International
, a nonprofit founded to foster one-on-one friendships, employment opportunities and leadership skills for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD
Headquartered in Miami, the organization has opened a new office inside the Beachwood Adult Activities Center, located at the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities facility on Mercantile Road.
Program supervisor Ryan Wirth, whose involvement with Best Buddies dates back to high school, has big plans for the Cleveland location. First, he and his still forming team will create "friendship chapters" at area high schools and colleges.
Two chapters are currently operating at Case Western Reserve University and Kent State University under the guidance of student leaders and advisors. These chapters will cultivate meet-ups between volunteer "peer buddies" and people with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and other undiagnosed disabilities. Ideally, meaningful friendships will form, empowering "buddies" with all-important socialization skills.
"Getting everyone to meet each other and talk is key," Wirth says. "As those friendships become active, you can see them grow naturally on their own."
Socials outings include ordinary activities like bowling, movies and dinner, but the impact on participants is enormous, says Wirth. Since its launch in 1989, the nonprofit has helped hundreds of thousands of individuals with IDD secure jobs, live independently, improve their public speaking, and, just as critically, feel valued by society.
"For me, it's having that 'aha' moment in seeing someone with a disability enjoy themselves and come out of their shell," says Wirth. "They become part of this large group where everyone's welcome."
Meanwhile, the Cleveland-based Best Buddies office continues to grow. Wirth is planning a fundraising walk
and basketball challenge featuring Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving for September. Next is an initiative funded by the Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council
that seeks to get adults with IDD into the workforce.
While Wirth loves the work, it helps to have a personal investment in shepherding the group's success in Northeast Ohio, he says.
Best Buddies has been part of Wirth's life since serving as chapter leader in high school and college. Upon graduation from Slippery Rock University in 2013, he acted as program manager for Best Buddies Maryland for two years. In addition, his future brother-in-law, Branden, who is on the autism spectrum, has enjoyed participating in organization events.
“I am overjoyed to introduce the Cleveland community to Best Buddies," says Wirth. "I want to bring that same joy and sense of belonging that Branden has experienced to all of the people in Cleveland with IDD.”