Overcoming barriers, student organization finds a creative way to connect communities

Illustration by Jenny Hudak
By Jenny Hudak

Illustration by Jenny Hudak

Overcoming barriers, student organization finds a creative way to connect communities

By Jenny Hudak
The University of Miami’s chapter of Best Buddies partnered with the University of Michigan to develop a pen pal program to connect community members with intellectual or developmental disabilities who lack access to technology

Best Buddies, an international organization with chapters at more than 100 college campuses across the United States, fosters one-on-one friendships between students and a person in their community with an intellectual or developmental disability, referred to as their “buddy.” Typically, the University of Miami Best Buddies chapter hosts events on campus to connect its 50 student members with their buddies. When Kathleen Hanson realized on-campus events would not be taking place in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, she knew the show must go on.

Hanson, a senior majoring in accounting from Melbourne, Australia, serves as the president of the University’s Best Buddies student organization. Knowing the semester would resume with limited in-person interaction, she understood that her approach to planning the group’s events needed to be reimagined. Without programs like the Special Olympics and annual holiday parties, Hanson recognized that their buddies would be lacking the social interaction to which they have grown accustomed.

“We knew that it would be a challenge to find accessible ways to create virtual programs,” she shared, highlighting that many buddies in the community lack access to technology.

As a result, Hanson and the organization’s executive board decided to go the extra mile—1,300 miles to be exact. The students reached out to friends and fellow leaders at the University of Michigan’s Best Buddies chapter and got to work. Together, they decided to connect their programs and buddies as pen pals.

“The pen pal system eliminates a lot of the barriers you would encounter when you think of virtual programming and afforded us a way to still live up to our Best Buddies mission,” Hanson said.

Through the pen pal program, students and their buddy are paired with another duo from the University of Michigan. Every couple of weeks, the students and buddies will connect to write and exchange a letter. Jake Weissman and Nick McDonough, co-presidents of the University of Michigan’s Best Buddies chapter, are looking forward to partnering with Hanson and her team. 

“Many of our buddies haven’t experienced ways to socially interact with their friends as of late. Through this partnership, buddies from both chapters will be able to socialize with one another and form lasting friendships,” they shared in an email. “We can’t wait for this program to begin and look forward to forging a lasting partnership with the University of Miami Best Buddies program.”

Lindsey Woods, an assistant director with the Butler Center for Service and Leadership and the student organization’s advisor, shared that this experience is mutually beneficial for students and their buddies.

 “I love that Best Buddies teaches the importance of inclusivity and of feeling valued. It is not about looking at our differences, but at what makes us similar and able to connect on a level that is meaningful,” Woods said.

When Hanson and their executive board approached Woods about developing the pen pal program, Woods knew this was a unique and exciting opportunity for the Best Buddies community.

“When I heard about it, I knew that this is something we had to talk about. This is exactly the type of thinking we want our organization members to do,” Woods added. “Let’s not focus on what we can’t do, let’s focus on what we can do to create quality service experiences for students, but also quality experiences for our community.”

While members of Best Buddies eagerly await their return to face-to-face interactions with their buddies, Hanson emphasizes that this new program could prove to be a long-term addition to the work they do.

“Our goal is to make connections. If the pen pal program goes well, I think this could be something really cool that we could set in motion as a long-term program to benefit the club’s members but also the buddies,” she said. “Best Buddies isn’t just something I got involved with. It is something that actively changed how I approach my life.”

The pen pal program is expected to begin in early October. Students interested in joining Best Buddies and participating in this new program are encouraged to visit their website on Engage.