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Building friendship and awareness through Best Buddies

| Judy Berthiaume

Like most UW-Eau Claire students, John Schiel likes to spend his down time hanging out with friends.

Bowling, playing video games or watching movies with a good buddy at his side are among the activities the senior elementary education major most enjoys when he’s taking a break from studying, working or training for his much-loved triathlons.

While John considers many of his fellow Blugolds great friends, the buddy he often chooses to share those activities with isn’t a college roommate or another Blugold with a passion for distance running.

Rather he’s a young man named Logan Cartman who John met three years ago through UW-Eau Claire’s Best Buddies program, an organization that pairs Blugolds with adults in the community who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The program aims to bring students together with community members to develop one-on-one friendships so they can share leisure activities.

“I really like spending time with Logan, playing video games and watching movies,” John says, noting that Mario Games and Pokémon are among their favorites. “When we get together, we have a blast. We enjoy going out to eat, watching movies, playing video games, bowling and just hanging out.”

Their friendship has grown stronger during the three years they’ve known each other, says John, a native of Cedarburg.

“Logan is an extremely caring person and is always looking out for people,” John says. “He is genuine and always wants what is best for others, and is really good at sensing when something may be wrong as well. He’s someone I can confide in and trust to tell things that I am going through or may be bothering me.”

Logan values his friendship with John as well, he says, adding that bowling is his favorite thing to with his college friend.

“He is just a very nice individual to be around,” Logan says. “I feel pretty lucky to have a friend like John who comes and makes time to watch me participate in Special Olympics. I hope after he has graduated that he will stay in contact.”

John says Logan’s family also have become important to him.

Logan and his family regularly show their support, asking him questions about his studies, his life and his races, John says, noting that he’s hoping Logan will be there to cheer him on when he runs the Eau Claire Marathon this spring.

“Logan’s parents are so kindhearted and sincere,” John says. “I have had great conversations with them and have really had a chance to open up to them, which has helped me become a more authentic person and improve my relationships with others.”

John first became aware of the Best Buddies program in high school, but didn’t know that colleges also had chapters.

“As soon as I became aware of it at UW-Eau Claire, I signed up,” John says. “I’ve been friends with Logan for three years. Our friendship has been a highlight of my college experience. We’ve become great friends who help each other out in tough times, but also cheer each other on. I go to some of his Special Olympics basketball games and he supports me in my races.”

UW-Eau Claire's Best Buddies organization, first established on campus in 2004, typically matches about 50 college students with community buddies each year, John says.

The campus organization also works to raise awareness about issues facing people with disabilities, John says.

On March 2, UW-Eau Claire’s chapter of Best Buddies will launch its annual "Spread the Word to End the Word" campaign, a weeklong effort to get people to stop using the R-word — retarded.

The R-word continues to be used inappropriately and offensively in everyday language, says John, who is the current treasurer and past president of the campus organization.

"When people use the word retarded in their language, it tends to be used in a derogatory way,” John says. “It’s found offensive by people with disabilities and their allies. Our group tries to raise awareness about the word, get people to think about the words they use and help them to know how to correctly talk about people with disabilities.”

The university’s Best Buddies members participate in a national day of awareness about the R-word each spring, setting up information tables in Davies Center and reaching out in various ways to area schools and the community. The group also films and produces a "Spread the Word to End the Word" video each year to help share their message.

“We are encouraging people to use person-first language and remove the R-word from their vocabulary,” John says, noting that first-person language means putting a person before their disability. “If they hear someone using the R-word, tell them to pick a different word. This campaign is really about reminding people that this is an offensive word and that people do get hurt when they hear it."

In addition to gaining a valued friend, John’s involvement with Best Buddies also has given him an opportunity to learn about the kinds of care available for people with disabilities within the Eau Claire community as well as the different organizations that provide service for people with disabilities. That awareness will make him a better teacher and a better community member wherever life takes him, he says.

Interest among students in the Best Buddies program continues to grow as more Blugolds become familiar with the organization and its goals, John says. Every semester, he sees great friendships developing between buddy pairs, he says.

The organization is special because the students who are part of it are from a variety of majors but all are there because they share a passion for making a difference in someone’s life.

“This isn’t something that’s required for a class or to meet any other requirements,” John says. “Everyone who is part of this is here because they truly want to be.”

Logan and John are making the most of their time together this spring, knowing that in the fall John will student teach, first at a school someplace in Wisconsin and then at a school abroad.

After he graduates in December, John will look for a teaching job in an elementary or middle school. While graduation might mean that John moves from the Chippewa Valley, both Logan and John hope that their friendship will continue well into the future.

John says he will get involved in Best Buddies wherever he teaches, or he’ll try to start a new chapter if the school doesn’t already have one. The Best Buddies organization also has community programs that he could join, he says.

“Best Buddies, along with many other experiences that I’ve had at UW-Eau Claire, has changed me and made me a better person,” John says. “It’s helped me grow in more ways than I ever could have imagined. I want this program to continue to be part of my life.”

Photo caption: Best Buddies Logan Cartman, left, and John Schiel, right.