Biology major Michaela Lambert ’14 used to hate Mondays.
For the first two years of high school, Lambert, from Napa, Calif., dreaded Monday mornings as much as any other student. But during her junior year, she came across the notebook.
It was a notebook full of remarkable cartoon sketches, said Lambert and it led her forge new ground at Whitman.
It belonged to a boy whom she calls Andrew (not his real name). He suffers from Epidermolysis Bullosa, a genetic disorder that causes skin blisters and ruptures fragile organs “with just the slightest aggravation.”
“Despite having had part of his fingers removed, he could draw images I could only dream of producing,” Lambert said.
Lambert quickly developed a friendship with Andrew. And while he told her about his struggles with his body and his foster families, the fast friends drew cartoon characters and watched Crocodile Dundee together.
Lambert met Andrew through a program called “Best Buddies,” an international nonprofit that aims to foster friendships with the developmentally disabled.
When Lambert arrived at Whitman, she found no similar program existed so she took it upon herself to start the first Best Buddies chapter in Washington. Lambert wanted to “share the joy that I experienced with Andrew with the students of Whitman College,” she said.
The Best Buddies pilot program for Washington is organized in a way where “Whitman students are paired with adults in the community who have intellectual and developmental disabilities in order to form one-to-one friendships,” said Lambert.
Lambert received the Ben Rabinowitz Student Drive Project Award, a $2,500-grant from Whitman, to jumpstart her project. Local community member Carla Nibler helped Lambert match 19 Whitman students with 19 developmentally disabled adults in Walla Walla.
Nibler coordinates the Walla Walla County Senior Parent to Parent Group, providing emotional support and information to parents and caregivers of individuals with developmental disabilities.
Local parents “were very excited to hear that Michaela was willing to start a chapter in Walla Walla and said they would love to have their children involved with the program,” Nibler said.
Megan Piercy and Lauren Elgee ’14 , who comes to Whitman from Portland, Ore, are one of the buddy pairs that meet every other week in the Reid Campus Center for a variety of activities, from pumpkin carving to playing board games.
“We’ve been to several functions together,” said Piercy. “Lauren also came over to my house. It’s fun.”
Marika Lou ’14 (from Salem, Ore) who has been closely involved with her former roommate’s project, says there is strong sense of community in the tight-knit group.
“A buddy offered to help me take the Christmas lights down after our Winter Ball,” Lou recalled. “I declined since I was almost done, but thanked him for the offer. And he said ‘That’s what Best Buddies are for: we’ve got each other’s backs.’ I could see just how much the friendships with all of us meant to him.”
Nibler emphasizes that such a program helps students as much as their buddies. She says that Best Buddies promotes a better understanding of what it means to have a disability.
“We hope students see how capable their buddies are,” Nibler said. “We hope they’ll see that a friendship with a buddy can be fun and enriching. Perhaps when they’re out in the community after graduation, they’ll hire someone with a disability.”
Today, Lambert doesn’t just look forward to Mondays and starting a new week; she dreams about where her Washington program will go in the future.
“My goal is that Best Buddies will continue to expand on campus,” she said. “There are still many community members who could benefit from a one-to-one friendship; all we need are students to join.”
-Eleanor Ellis ’13