Reiter & Walsh P.C. talks with University of Michigan Best Buddies Club President, Sarah Erpenbeck, about her love for the cause, her relationship to the Buddies, and the expected growth of the Michigan chapter in the upcoming year.
What is Best Buddies?
Best Buddies is an international nonprofit 501(c)(3) that serves individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). The group is “dedicated to ending the social, physical, and economic isolation of the 200 million people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).” Best Buddies hopes to accomplish these goals by creating opportunities for one-to-one friendships between Buddies and members of the community, as well as integrated employment and leadership development for those with IDD. They have around 2,500 chapters across the U.S. and in over 48 countries internationally. There are almost 500 college chapters across the United States. The University of Michigan has one of the oldest ones — they’ve been a club on campus for over 25 years!
Club President Sarah Erpenbeck is a Neuroscience major and plans to go to medical school after she graduates. She is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and has been involved with Best Buddies for over seven years. She is a member of the Pi Beta Phi fraternity for women and the University of Michigan Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP).
Q: “When and how did you become affiliated with the Best Buddies program? What inspired you to volunteer with Best Buddies in the first place?”
A: “So I actually joined when I was a freshman in high school back in Wisconsin, and I mostly joined because I thought it was a cool club and liked the mission. But, I was introduced to Best Buddies by my friend’s mom who learned about Best Buddies through her daughter’s dance studio. She contacted me asking if I wanted to get involved, and I’ve been a part of Best Buddies ever since! A girl in the studio was a buddy in the program and she actually ended up becoming my buddy when I joined! I ended up having the best time in high school. I still keep in contact with my buddy. She and I still get coffee when I’m visiting home. I was secretary my senior year, and then when I came to Michigan, I wanted to see if they had a program, and they did. So I’ve just been involved ever since! It’s been my favorite part of my college experience; it’s so fun.”
Q: “Do you have a particular buddy (or buddies) that you spend time with through U of M? Tell me more about them.”
A: “My own buddy and I have been matched since my freshman year, and he’s kind of quiet and shy, but we both love coffee and we always go to Panera twice a month and catch up. I am also really good friends with a lot of the other buddies, too. Do you know Aidin? He happens to love Greek life and is friends with a lot of girls in Pi Phi so he’s at the house for dinner frequently. But, we hang out a lot. We probably get ice cream once or twice a month and we talk on the phone like once a week. I kind of have that relationship with a lot of buddies, where like they’re not necessarily my one-on-one buddy who I am matched with, but I still spend time with them. I talk to at least four or five buddies once a week, so it’s pretty special that I have such good relationships with so many of the members. I run into them on campus sometimes in the Union and I love that.”
Q: “Yeah, that’s really cool that you have a relationship with more than one buddy. So, what inspired you to take a leadership role in this club on campus?”
A: “I was approached in high school to take a leadership role as secretary when I was a senior, and it changed my experience a bit because I got to know a lot more of the buddies besides my own, which I really liked. My freshman year of college, when I was assigned to my buddy, I loved the club, but I knew I wanted to get more involved. I joined the board when I was a sophomore, so I was treasurer for two years and now I’m going to be president! Being on the board has just totally transformed the whole experience for me. It makes it a lot more personal, a lot more rewarding, a lot more fun.”
Expansion is the Key to Success
Sarah will be graduating in the Spring of 2019 from the University of Michigan, but she has a lot she wants to accomplish with the Michigan chapter before attending medical school. The biggest goal on her agenda in the upcoming year is to raise enough money to establish a state office in Michigan. Best Buddies hopes to raise a portion of the money for their new Michigan office during their Friendship Walk in September. Having a state office allows for Best Buddies to expand beyond colleges to high schools, middle schools, and the general community. Right now, there are only a few universities in Michigan that have Best Buddies programs.
“The point of the walk is to get the Best Buddies program in more high schools in Michigan so more people can be like me and join while they’re in high school and continue in college and hopefully beyond,” explains Sarah.
The University of Michigan has a large, well-established Best Buddies chapter and there are around 200+ people participating currently. Due to its success, there have not been many major changes since Sarah arrived on campus. However, major changes have been happening around the state in terms of expansion. During Sarah’s freshman year, there were only a few colleges besides U of M that had Best Buddies. When Sarah attended the annual Best Buddies conference in July, she was pleased to see 10+ chapters from around the state attending as well, even some high schools! In her words, seeing the expansion across Michigan “to all aspects of education and beyond” during her time as a member of the U of M chapter has been the most exciting part of being a part of Best Buddies.
The hope is that the walk, which is scheduled for September 29th, will be the tipping point in raising enough funds for the state office. Once the office is up and running, chapters will start opening up left and right because they’ll have the funds and resources available. The goal is to have the new state office up and running by January 2019.
I asked Sarah what else she thought that people needed to know about Best Buddies that we hadn’t already covered:
“The thing about Best Buddies is that it’s such a unique organization because you’re paired one-on-one and it’s not volunteer work, it’s not anything like that. It’s just really a way to connect the community that has intellectual and mental disabilities to college students. The two are normally segregated and it’s very sad. I think a lot of people join our organization because they’re excited about the mission and then it just totally ends up transforming their life. For me, this club… I didn’t join to help someone. The buddies help me so much more than I feel like I could ever help them. They just teach me so much. I don’t know, it’s just the most amazing organization and I think everyone really benefits. So many people in our club do so many amazing things, just hearing their stories makes you so excited for the change that hopefully society is having towards people with disabilities. Just being at the leadership conference this year, hearing so many stories, this organization really changes lives and it’s exciting to be a part of it
Along with Sarah, Reiter & Walsh P.C. will be attending the Best Buddies Friendship Walk: Michigan on Saturday, September 29th, 2018 at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Our team’s goal is to raise $2,500 to donate towards establishing a permanent office for the Michigan chapter. To donate to our team, click here! If you are interested in walking or creating your own team, more information can be found here. Best Buddies is always looking for new volunteers to help end the isolation of people with intellectual and physical disabilities. To find volunteer opportunities near you, click here.
Join the Ann Arbor Walk! Sat., Sept. 29
The Ann Arbor, Michigan Best Buddies walk will be held on Saturday, September 29 from 8:00 AM to 1:00 PM at The Farm at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor:5557 McAuley Dr., Ypsilanti, MI 48197. Event details here.
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