This week we caught up with the Senior Director of International Programs for the Best Buddies organisation, Jennifer Marie Allen. Best Buddies International is the largest organization in the world dedicated to ending the social, physical and economic exclusion of 200 million people with intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders (IDD).
And this year Best Buddies will open in Dubrovnik, the first project in Croatia. Jennifer is based out of Madrid and she visited Dubrovnik to attend a special press conference for the upcoming opening.
Let’s start right at the beginning, can you tell me some more information about the Best Buddies program?
Yes, so Best Buddies was started in 1989 by Anthony Kennedy Shriver, he is the nephew of the former US President John F. Kennedy. In fact, it wasn’t really well-known at the time but JFK had a sister with intellectual disability named Rosemary. At the time it was hidden from society as it was seen as somewhat shameful. JFK and his sister, Eunice, were huge change makers for people with IDD, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, in the United States. JFK actually changed laws and such down institutions, he was probably the most important President in terms of inclusion for people with IDD. And then his sister, who is Anthony’s mother, started the Special Olympics and this is the sister organisation to Best Buddies. We work with the same people, but they focus on sports and we focus on employment and friendship. Anthony grew up actually going to Special Olympic events all over the world. So he was inspired by his aunt Rosemary when he was growing up and by going to these sporting events.
So when he got to High School and was graduating and going to Georgetown University he saw that a lot of his friends who had IDD had limited opportunities in terms of making friends, continuing education and getting a job. So he came up with the first concept of Best Buddies, where he asked some of his friends in Georgetown to get paired up with some of his friends. Initially he thought that it would be some kind of Big Brother/Sister set-up, but he quickly found out that it was mutually beneficial. That’s how best Buddies started, very small and grassroots at Georgetown University. And from there they replicated that model all over the United States, where it is a household name. And in fact we are now in 49 countries worldwide.
So this the first time that you have started operating in Croatia. What are the challenges of starting Best Buddies in Croatia?
There are different key pieces that we need to put together to get started in a new country. One is obviously funding, the second is having the right people leading the movement and then having a culture of volunteerism. As half of our project relies on volunteer work we really need to solve this challenge. The stars aligned in Croatia because Nancy Grbavac Perović had contacted Best Buddies Serbia, which we launched about three years ago, and they then passed on experience of starting a new project. So Nancy, who is running Best Buddies Croatia, is a Croatian/American and a mother of a daughter, Ella, with IDD and she lives just outside of Dubrovnik. And she is very much doing this for all those people in Croatia with intellectual disabilities and we are extremely happy to have her on-board.
How does the funding of Best Buddies work?
It is a traditional non-profit model. So each country is self-sustainable in terms of finances. Best Buddies does not provide financing to all 49 countries, it is a little like a franchise model in that each country looks after its own financing. We give training and support and we help where we can, but the idea is that in each market finds its own financing, that could be through government organisations, either city, county or state, then through foundations, private donations and sponsored events. Finance could also come from embassies, and Best Buddies Croatia has applied for a grant from the US Embassy in Zagreb, which we are hoping will be the seed capital. We have had success with US embassies over the past years, such as in Serbia, so we are hoping that this will be the case in Croatia as well. Ideally we have a diverse share of sources so we are not dependent on one source. We are also looking at EU funding.
How challenging do you think it will be to find volunteers in Croatia?
For the friendship program you get matched with somebody with an IDD in your city. Your requirement as a volunteer is that you need to communicate once a week, that can be via a phone call or WhatsApp or whatever you prefer. And you need to see each other twice a month, that could be going to have a coffee, going to the beach or whatever activity you would do with any other friend. That is the minimum level of interaction. We often see that people go beyond that requirement. Best Buddies also hosts group events, so that helps to build a community beyond the one-to-one friendship. In my eyes that isn’t too much of a commitment. I guess it depends on the culture of volunteerism in each country.
So I presume that you give these volunteers some training before they start in the program?
That’s right. We give them training at the beginning of the project, really on everything, so what is IDD, what is an appropriate friendship in the Best Buddies program. From very simple things, like if we go for a coffee who will pay. And then we train volunteers not on only IDD but also the specific aspects of the program.
Do you need a physical object, a space where you can hold events?
It would be really nice to have a dedicated space, but we also realise that this isn’t always easy to find. When we have community events or other events it would be an advantage to have a venue. There is also the feeling that people who live in that city will know where our base is, and that can be important. We do work with a lot of NGOs in communities, so at an early stage we would hope that we could use their space. It is all about building a community. In fact, we also partner with NGOs to find volunteers. But also we are finding that more and more companies are wanting to give back to the community through volunteering. So we also have a Corporate Best Buddies project that we do in a lot of different countries. This is something that we will explore in Croatia.
What have proved to be the benefits of the whole Best Buddies program since it began?
Many people with an IDD have not been able to expand outside their family network or maybe a daycentre, so this is often the first time that they have a genuine friend who does not have a disability and is not from the immediate close circle. That is really powerful. It also helps foster the development of social skills that are transferable in other areas of their lives, such as employment. We have a whole spectrum of differing programs and all of them have proved to be extremely successful.
Are you planning to start Best Buddies in other parts of Croatia?
The idea is that we start here in Dubrovnik, we are always focused on the quality and not the quantity. We hope to iron-out any challenges here in Dubrovnik and really develop. But what we have seen in other countries is that when a program is successful other cities want to join. So then we would have a sub accreditation in other cities, where Nancy would train those organisations on how to implement Best Buddies.
When are you planning to actually start here in Dubrovnik?
The idea is to start in September. That then allows us to find out about the funding and the overall organisation. Our goal is to have the first friendship program after the summer in September.