The Handicapped's Best Buddy
Bartley, Diane, The Saturday Evening Post
THE HANDICAPPED'S BEST BUDDY
At 21, Kathy Parker has the world in her pocket. Like any ambitious young woman her age, she's brimming with plans and projects and grand ideas. She bubbles with enthusiasm, recounting her crowded social calender, her full-time job, and her volunteer work for a favorite non-profit organization.
Describe Kathy Parker and a long string of adjectives come to mind. Considerate. Vivacious. Self-confident. Extraordinarily gentle.
The fact that she is mentally handicapped hardly seems worth mentioning.
But too few people in our society take the time--or have the opportunity--to build a friendship with someone like Kathy, says Anthony K. Shriver, 25-year-old president of the Washington-based Best Buddies of America. And that missed friendship is society's loss: "When someone like that touches your life, it's something you can never forget," he says. "Their innocence reminds you of the way you used to be.
"And the way you can be again."
Today, Shriver, son of Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, brother of newscaster Maria Shriver and brother-in-law of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is making his own niche in the world by initiating those rare but rewarding relationships. His nonprofit organization, Best Buddies, matches college students with mentally handicapped "buddies." The new friends go to the movies and restaurants, plan pizza parties and camping trips, and attend football and baseball games.
"They do," Shriver says, "exactly what you would do with any pal."
And more of these friendships are flourishing. In only two years, the organization has grown to include 67 colleges and universities in 22 states and the District of Columbia. Nationwide, more than 1,100 college students are matched with a similar number of buddies, with new matches and new chapters added each month.
By this time next year, Shriver predicts that Best Buddies chapters will operate at more than 100 college campuses--an astonishing number considering the age of the organization. It was just four years ago that Shriver, then a senior at Georgetown University, stood up in history class and announced he was starting a new student volunteer organization: "Anyone else interested?"
Maybe this young man, blessed with that square Kennedy jaw and model-handsome looks, also inherited his family's Midas touch. Or maybe--and more probably--Shriver grew up learning firsthand what makes a good volunteer organization tick. His father served as the first director of the Peace Corps; his mother started the Special Olympics for handicapped athletes.
When it came time for Shriver to get serious about his life--and he'll admit it took four years of fairly unserious pursuits at Georgetown to figure things out--volunteerism seemed a natural choice.
Of course, not many of us have the luxury of working full-time as a non-paid volunteer. But people like Carol and Larry VanTiem, of Boulder Creek, Calif., are thankful that Shriver does. Their son, Tony, 16, has become an active participant in the Best Buddies program, paired for the past two years with Elizabeth Brandwein, now a senior at the University of California-Santa Cruz.
"We didn't understand the program at first," admits Carol VanTiem. "We thought it was strange to have a girl paired with a boy. I guess with a learning-handicapped kid you're a little protective. But then we met Elizabeth at a soccer game and we were very impressed."
Since then, Elizabeth and Tony have met innumerable times for lunch, shared laughs over movies, and tested their culinary talents by serving brownies, cookies, and complete meals. The two talk at least once a week on the phone.
The VanTiems have reciprocated by inviting Elizabeth to their home, even including her when the family brought along their horses and went camping on the beach.
"These college students really care," says Carol VanTiem. …