When I was a freshman, I met my buddy. By buddy, I don't mean someone I randomly met and befriended, even though that is pretty much close to the truth. I mean a person with intellectual disabilities that was assigned to me through a program at my school called Best Buddies. The purpose of the program is to encourage friendship between students and their peers with intellectual disabilities. My buddy was nineteen years old and a junior. His name was Daniel, and he helped me believe in the power of friendship.
Going into that first Best Buddy meeting freshman year was nothing new to me. It was one of many clubs I was joining that year, trying like everyone else to establish myself at a new school. I was and am an overachiever, and I remember thinking I might dip out early to sign up for Spanish Club and still make it to volleyball on time. I got the information and left. At the next meeting, a couple of weeks later, I was introduced to my buddy. It wasn't the first time I had seen him, though it was the first time we formally met. I had been going to school with Daniel since elementary school. He was one of the kids that walked with a chaperone in the hallways and played in a different part of the playground during recess. My friends and I didn't talk about those kids much. If we did, it was always something horrible, indicative of our own immaturity.
Back then, Daniel had this blue book bag with stars and moons all over it and his name embroidered on the front in big capital letters. It was kept in the gym with everyone else's book bags during the after-school daycare program. A couple of times, I would watch as my friends took it and threw it on top of a cabinet, laughing. This always gave me a weird, tight feeling inside, but I would just laugh along and run away with them to play tether ball outside. It wasn't until awhile after becoming Daniel's buddy I remembered this, and as bad as it still makes me feel, I was glad I got a chance to redeem myself with him. I vowed to take the club seriously.
The beginning of our friendship was rocky, to say the least. Daniel was almost completely nonverbal. He would skip meetings more than occasionally, and didn't seem interested in hanging outside of school. He didn't like being around a lot of people, so we would often have to cut group meetings short. The only time I ever saw him happy was when his dad came to pick him up. His face would light up, and he would show him pictures he had drawn at that day's meeting, usually of him and his dad together.
Finally after a couple of months, we began to connect. Daniel had a burning passion for Elvis Presley. We would listen to songs and bob our heads to the beat together. He also loved going to the movies. That boy could pack down more popcorn than anyone I know, and he would laugh loudly and without shame at all the corny parts. It made me feel good to laugh with him. Unlike with my other friends, I knew I never had to worry about Daniel and having any dumb arguments or stupid drama. When I had a bad day, being around his simple, unaffected humor was like falling into a feather mattress after a scary slip. For me, the moment of glory in our friendship was when I walked into his classroom one day to talk to his teacher, and I heard him say to a classmate, "That's Melanie. She's my friend." It was the most coherent thing I had ever heard from him. I was beaming.
My junior year, Daniel's dad died. It was as if every bit of progress we had made together was reversed. He no longer wanted to talk, and I didn't even get to see those rare moments of excitement like when we had first started. The outgoing side of his personality that had begun to show was completely withdrawn. I couldn't bring myself to go to the funeral. I sent his family flowers and spent the day in my bed, depressed, watching bad TV.
The next couple of weeks were hard. I felt we were both avoiding each other. Some people told me that he didn't fully understand that his dad was gone, but I knew that was completely untrue. Despite our awkwardness, I wanted to help him get through it. Eventually we were able to work back towards a good communication level. We never fully returned to our old friendship, but under the circumstances, nobody could expect us to. Things had changed.
Daniel graduated that year. I watched proudly as he was given his diploma and clapped loudly when all the names had been called. Afterwards, I hugged him and his mom, and she pulled me aside and told me how much my friendship had meant to Daniel over the years and how grateful she was that I was there to help him through some hard times. I assured her it was mutual.
I learned so much from Daniel. Our friendship inspired me to take a bigger role in the club, and eventually I was selected to attend the international Best Buddies Leadership Conference, which was held the summer before my senior year. The conference is meant to prepare a person from each chapter to take over the cub as president the following year. There, I learned more about intellectual disabilities. I heard so many inspirational stories, and met so many amazing, accomplished people with disabilities. My eyes were opened. My experience with Daniel was special, but not unique. Absolutely anyone could benefit from a friendship like mine. Reaching out to a person with intellectual disabilities can be the most mutually rewarding thing two people can experience.
My new buddy's name is Chantel. She is a bubbly, happy person with a passion for shopping and a willingness to befriend anyone. I couldn't be more excited to get to know her, or to help everyone in the club get to know their own buddies. I believe that friendship is one of the most powerful and influential things a person can experience. Because of those friendships, I have a stronger sense of confidence in everything I take on, and have a greater respect for everyone around me. Most importantly, however, I have acquired a strong belief that absolutely everyone deserves a good friend.