How “Best Buddies” Fight Loneliness and Make Life Better

Camille and Katey Nelson

From the St. Paul Pioneer Press Opinion Page, Oct. 27. 2019

“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do… .” So begins a Three Dog Night song that hit the airwaves when phones were still connected to the wall.

I listened to the song many times in my youth without reflecting on the lyrics. But in my later years, as the parent of a son who has autism and no friends, they strike a chord.

It’s the nature of parenthood to fret about our children’s health and welfare. For parents like me, there’s a special kind of worry and heartache that settles in when hope and reality don’t align. It’s born of a recognition that, for people with limited social and communication skills, establishing and maintaining friendships is easier said than done.

The passage of time has intensified my concern about my son’s loneliness, for research demonstrates it is detrimental to both physical and mental health.

Writing on thriveglobal.com, physician and author Kelli Harding states that being disconnected from others increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, and premature death.

The antidote for loneliness, she writes, lies in our homes, workplaces, schools, and broader community. If we just connect, we will feel better and live longer.

A host of Minnesota organizations offer group activities for individuals with special needs. But for some people, like my son, the effort required to navigate numerous personalities and conversations in a group setting outweighs the desire to engage.

And so, it was with great interest that I learned of an effort to bring Best Buddies to Minnesota on a large scale.

Anthony Kennedy Shriver launched Best Buddies International 30 years ago as a one-to-one friendship program. Today, the nonprofit’s mission includes four pillars: friendship, integrated employment, leadership development, and inclusive living.

Best Buddies takes a holistic, lifelong approach. With support from staff and volunteers, and a growing use of technology, students with and without intellectual and developmental limitations are paired up, thoughtfully and carefully.

As they form friendships, students learn we are not all the same; that different does not mean less. Ideally, the relationships will continue as students advance through school and enter the workplace.

Though Best Buddies operates internationally, Minnesota is one of 21 states without a chapter. Every indication is 2020 will bring a new office, staff, operating board, and ambitious plans to add to (and, potentially collaborate with) other organizations that cater to Minnesotans with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Emma Zagar is responsible for the Best Buddies Minnesota expansion program. Though Best Buddies has a small presence in Minnesota, Zagar’s goal is to bring it to every community. To do so, she is relying upon volunteers like Katey Nelson to help her raise money and awareness.

Growing up, Nelson knew her sister Camille had a disability. Yet, she didn’t give much thought to how life might be different for her. That changed when Nelson attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.

As a Gustie, Nelson participated in a friendship program called Gustie Buddies. As her understanding of her younger sister grew, so did her passion for creating inclusive spaces for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“Seeing the challenges that Camille has faced -– making friends, navigating the education system, finding a job, and living in a society that unfortunately caters to people without disabilities -– reinforces the energy that I put toward Best Buddies,” she says.

Last year, Nelson raised nearly $70,000 for the first Best Buddies Champion of the Year gala in Minnesota. This year, the 24-year-old serves as gala chair for the Nov. 22 fundraiser to be held in Minneapolis.

Jennifer Myster is mother to both Camille and Katey. When she attended the Best Buddies leadership conference in Indiana last summer, Myster was excited to learn about friendships that transformed individuals from being fairly alone and lonely to having a friend, doing activities -– even staying out late and worrying their parents.

“Our kids are really lonely. They don’t have the social skills to reach out and develop those relationships. They take things like rejection differently. It’s hard,” she says.

As Camille’s mother and as president of Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital, Myster is particularly attuned to the integrated employment pillar.

Something like 90 percent of people with disabilities aren’t working to their full potential,” she says. “Consider the money we spend as a nation on support services at the same time we are looking for people to work. We’ve got all these people who want to work and to do something meaningful. There’s so much capacity there.”

The four pillars of Best Buddies -– friendship, integrated housing, leadership skills, and employment –- are the antidote Dr. Harding prescribes for individuals like Camille and my son to combat loneliness and live healthy lives.

I’m hoping there is a groundswell of support in Minnesota for a 30-year-old model that has impacted more than 1 million individuals. I’m eager to see how Best Buddies transforms Minnesotans who face extraordinary challenges — as well as those engage in supporting them.

“Everyone, no matter who you are, deserves human interaction,” Nelson says. “I think these one-on-one friendships make that possible.” Her biggest hope for Camille -– her best buddy — is for her 19-year-old sister to feel like she belongs, because we all miss out when we leave someone out.

To learn more about Best Buddies or to purchase tickets to the November 22 Champion of the Year gala, click here. 

If you are interested in more inspirational content, reach out or check out Caryn’s award-winning memoir, “Bitter or Better: Grappling With Life on the Op-Ed Page.”