Best Buddies creates lifelong friendships amid pandemic

Friendship organization Best Buddies to raise money for inclusion

The MU Best Buddies meeting on March 16 was a symphony of laughter, cheers and happiness squeezed into 30 minutes. To president Neil Wegrzyn, meetings are always a little chaotic for Best Buddies, but members wouldn’t have it any other way.

Best Buddies is a nonprofit organization that assists people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Wegrzyn said the MU chapter provides social opportunities for both college students and community members.

“What we are is a friendship organization,” Wegrzyn said. “We’re here because we want to be here. We’re not here for service hours, we’re not here for our resumes, we’re not here for any other reason other than just being friends.”

The club pairs MU students with people who have disabilities in the Columbia community. The club’s goal is to create lifelong friendships. General meetings are held every two weeks on Tuesdays via Zoom, with special meetings where participants play the video game “Among Us,” held on Sundays.

Amy Lenenfeld, vice president of MU Best Buddies, said she gained a new perspective on people and friendships through the organization. She has been a member of Best Buddies since high school.

“My friendships in Best Buddies are some of the most genuine friendships I have,” Lenenfeld said. “Your time with your Buddy means so much more to them, and even to me, than it does to my own roommates [for example].”

Anna Supel, financial director of MU Best Buddies, has been with the organization since her freshman year of high school. Supel is also on the Best Buddies in Missouri committee, where she manages social media, organizes outreach campaigns and designs plans for events.

“I joined Best Buddies because I wanted to find a way to promote inclusion within my environment [and] make new friends,” Supel said. “It’s something I really stand for — making individuals with disabilities feel welcome in a community and to be that friend to them.”

When the COVID-19 virus shut down the MU campus last March, Best Buddies made sure to meet virtually as often as possible so that friends could be checked on. The isolation felt during the pandemic is not new for many people with disabilities, Wegrzyn said.

“How we felt at the height of the pandemic — feeling isolated, feeling alone, feeling afraid to go outside — is how some people with disabilities have felt their whole lives,” Wegrzyn said.

In addition to maintaining relationships, the Best Buddies meetings have become a way to take a break from schoolwork. Supel said the Zoom meetings are important for her own wellbeing.

“I think it’s important to maintain relationships and make sure that we’re checking in with one another, especially during the pandemic,” Supel said. “It’s an important part of life to maintain social interactions with those people that we’re checking in on, but also having people checking in on us.”

On March 3, Best Buddies held a Spread the Word to End the Word event at Speakers Circle. Members called out to students passing by to sign a banner pledging to end the use of the R-word.

“I’m very passionate about ending the R-word,” Lenenfeld said. “I think it is disgusting and harmful and there is nothing good about it. A lot of my friends in Best Buddies have been personally affected by that word.”

Next for the club is the annual Best Buddies Friendship Walk on April 24.

According to the Best Buddies website, the walk is held to “[make] the world more welcoming to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities – one friendship, one job, and one life-changing connection at a time.”

“If there wasn’t COVID, we would all come together in St. Louis and do a big walk, but this year we’re just going somewhere in Columbia on a trail and walking together — just hanging out,” Lenenfeld said.

The walk will be livestreamed on Facebook for people who do not feel comfortable meeting in person. For those interested in donating, visit the Best Buddies website. Best Buddies in Missouri has raised over $24,000 so far, while MU Best Buddies has raised $1,000 and will be featured on the annual walk t-shirt, Supel said.

“It’s so cool to see how much of an impact the whole organization has on other people, and it makes my heart happy,” Lenenfeld said. “Seeing everybody come together and have fun and see all these new people… it just makes it worth it.”

Edited by Sophie Chappell |

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