Bryan Shanley, who was born with Down Syndrome 29 years ago, danced all night with his buddy. He ate Chick-Fil-A, played games and laughed with friends. It was a good night.
“This formal is something I love coming to because I get to spend time with all the fun people,” Shanley said. “I love dressing up for things like this.”
Shanely was at the Best Buddies formal, a gathering at Highland Park United Methodist Church on April 20. Shanely’s peer buddy Whitney Smith, a junior at SMU, tagged alongside him to join all the fun.
Best Buddies is an international non-profit organization that helps those with special needs form friendships, secure jobs, live independently, improve with social skills and most importantly, feel valued by society.
Founded by Anthony Shriver in 1989, Best Buddies has over 1,900 chapters worldwide, and continues to grow every year. The first chapter in Texas started in 1993.
According to Aveline Chan, vice president of the SMU Best Buddies chapter, there are about 50 peer members and 50 buddies in the organization.
“All of the buddies are adults, ranging from ages 18 to around 60 years old,” Chan said.
Smith said that she was paired with Shanley three years ago and that they get along beautifully. The pair goes to dinner once a week and listens to loud music in the car. Shanley’s hard work and motivation shows through his character every Friday and Saturday night, while he works at Razzoo’s Cajun Café in Dallas.
“I love jamming to JB, Justin Bieber and I never will stop,” Shanley said. “I also love to eat sushi at the Blue Sushi Sake Grill with Whitney.”
Shanley is looking forward to his 30th birthday, coming up this summer. He plans to celebrate with Smith, along with family, friends and, of course, a fun cake.
“I really like connecting with him each year, our relationship gets deeper and I just love being able to get the same buddy every year and just keep growing our relationship,” Smith said.
Tyler Gralapp, a sophomore at SMU, worked with children affected by autism in high school. Gralapp decided to join Best Buddies because he wanted to impact a community of people in which he cared greatly about.
“Best Buddies is my favorite organization because the relationships you make are life changing,” Gralapp said. “Being a member of this organization has taught me the importance of friendship and reminded me to value people regardless of their background.”
Gralapp is currently the membership chair for the campus Best Buddies chapter, in which he oversees all peer members’ activities and verifies that they are acting under the organizations standards.
Jordan Martin, associate member chair for Best Buddies, had an aunt pass away who was part of the intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) community. Martin said she transferred to SMU a month after her aunt’s death, and decided to join the organization.
“I wanted to give back to the IDD community in her memory,” Martin said. “I see my buddy three to four times a month and I talk to him usually two to three times per week.”
When Martin and her buddy spend time together, they enjoy watching a lot of movies and going out to eat.
SMU junior Andrea Usuga was paired with Jeremy Criswell when she joined Best Buddies her freshman year of college. Criswell, who is part of the IDD community, has been in Best Buddies for almost 16 years.
“I love my peer buddy Andrea so much because she always answers my phone calls, and we talk a lot,” Criswell said.
Usuga said she strongly believes in the organization.
“It is something I feel greatly about and makes a huge difference in another person’s life,” Usuga said. “Jeremy enjoys a simple phone from me and you should see his face light up when he meets somebody new at events like these.”
Usuga and Criswell had the opportunity to walk down the runway together last fall, during SMU’s Best Buddies fashion show that showcased the buddies together on the runway.
Best Buddies has two events per month both on and off campus. Some events this year have included a scavenger hunt, a costume party, the recent formal and the fashion show.
According to Chan, it is events like these that provide students who aren’t involved in Best Buddies the opportunity to interact with the buddies and get a better glimpse at how incredible and unique each of them are.
“I love Best Buddies so much because it has given me one of my best friends,” Chan said.
Chan said that after spending almost four years with her buddy Mollie, she has learned to love people better and enjoy things in life.
“Mollie is one of the strongest, honest, sassiest and fun-loving people I know,” Chan said.
Chan and her buddy enjoy having heart to heart conversations with one another.
A large portion of SMU student body participates in Greek life according to Gralapp, and most of the Greek organizations, if not all, have to do philanthropy work.
“Best Buddies is a perfect organization for students to get involved,” Gralapp said.
“Essentially, the goal of Best Buddies is to promote inclusion to those communities that normally feel left out.”