Best Buddies: Forging Friendships

RYAN IDROGO-LAM/New University Intern

It’s not every day you get the chance to meet the Backstreet Boys, the once infamous boy band of heart throbs from your childhood. UC Irvine’s Best Buddies club gives students the opportunity to do just that.

Best Buddies is a nonprofit organization dedicated to establishing a global volunteer movement within middle schools, high schools and college chapter’s around the world. Its mission is to help forge friendships and help others refine their leadership development skills for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Thomas Santealli, Ricky Kim, Eugene Haan, Titus Chan and Willy Pestolesi have all been diagnosed with Down syndrome. Together, they identify themselves as the “Back Street Boys” of Irvine. Thomas is the social butterfly, Ricky is the comedian, Eugene is soft spoken but sweet, Titus has the brains and Willy’s got the dance moves. They are all different and talented in their own ways, but they have two specific things in common: They are all part of the Best Buddies Club here at UCI and they all have big, happy hearts.

UCI’s Best Buddies chapter is focused on enhancing the lives of mentally disabled adolescents and adults by widening their social circle with friends and love. To become a peer buddy, each UCI Best Buddy member must submit an application stating their interests, activities and hobbies and are further matched with their buddy by common interests and personality types. It is a short and sweet process, one that promises a friend and an opportunity for a lifelong friendship.

Peer buddies have the opportunity to hang out with their buddy twice a month and contact them once a week via text, phone call, e-mail or other means of communication. Hang out time with their buddy can be anything from grabbing a drink, catching a movie, eating lunch or dinner or even playing a simple game of catch together.

UCI’s Best Buddies club hosts a variety of fundraisers located at food places such as Cherry on Top and Ruby’s Diner. This year the money being raised will go toward a planned field trip with their buddies to Knott’s Berry Farm and an end of the year prom dance for their buddies. The theme will be “Hollywood.”

The president of UCI’s Best Buddies Club, psychology and social behavior major Jenny Dao has been involved with Best Buddies for six years, since her sophomore year in high school. Dao’s buddy is Ricky Kim, the comedian from the “Back Street Boys.”

“Ricky is very sweet. He loves attention and he loves making people laugh. He’s like a big teddy bear to me,” Dao said.

Like the rest of the peer buddies, Jenny wanted to join this club because she wanted to actively make an impact in someone’s life. As easy as it may sound, being a friend is a simple act that goes a long way.

Just being around the buddies such as the “Back Street Boys” brings a joy that is greatly needed in this world. Their innocence is true and pure. They are the kindest people that carry the biggest hearts and provide the rarest love.

“From the buddies, I’ve learned that we need to accept everyone for their flaws because sometimes they aren’t flaws at all,”

Dao said. “They are what make people unique, whether it is freckles, a lisp or a disability of some sort.  I think I’ve just learned to accept myself and all that I am. ‘Buddies’ has shown me that whatever circumstances that you have been given, you make the best from it and live as happy as you can because the buddies do not hold themselves back from anything. They are the happiest beings I’ve ever meet.”

Come see the buddies and Irvine’s “Back Street Boys” in action on their Game/Karaoke night on Feb. 24 at Emerald Bay B from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.