When psychology major Ashwini Sarathy ’22 and neuroscience major Sophia Hernandez ’21 founded Best Buddies at William & Mary one year ago, they never imagined the club would grow to its current magnitude.
“We started it a year ago, and we had 20 buddies. This year we have almost 50 buddies and 200 students involved,” said Sarathy, motioning to the large space of the Sadler Center’s Tidewater AB, bustling with activity.
This realization dawned on the two student leaders as they gazed out at a sea of costumed students and community members, laughing over board games, candy consumption and pumpkin-painting. They were gathered for the club’s inaugural Halloween party on Oct. 27 to celebrate new friendships and showcase the season’s most creative costumes.
The event began with time spent in individual groups, where buddies competed in Candyland, snacked on Skittles and crafted. Especially enthusiastic to share their innovative ensembles were William & Mary student Ethan Miller ’23 and his buddy, Drew.
“We coordinated,” said Miller. “Drew is a biker and I’m a surfer. I’ve been told that this works because I guess they fought each other in Teen Beach Movie.”
“Drew’s costume is a little bit better than mine, though,” he admitted, applauding the commitment exhibited in Drew’s choice of leather jacket and spiked collar. Miller also expressed that his gratefulness for Drew transcended his costume talent.
“For me personally, (Best Buddies) is about making new friends,” he said. “Having Drew as my best buddy and being a freshman on campus, he kind of knows the whole area. He introduces me to new people. I’m really grateful I have such an awesome friend and a buddy.”
Making an impact
Best Buddies is an international organization that connects volunteers with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities for one-on-one friendships, leadership development and integrated employment, according to the organization’s website. It offers chapters at elementary, middle and high schools as well as colleges, companies and communities.
The W&M chapter recently won University Advancement’s Impact Week competition, Oct. 28-Nov. 1. During the week, three student organizations — selected by a committee of staff and students — competed to receive grant funding for community service projects. Best Buddies' proposed project was a job skills workshop. Set to take place in February in the Sadler Center, the event will provide job-search tools and skills to adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
The three groups competed by tabling for 6.5 hours Monday-Friday during the competition to solicit "votes" from fellow students in the form of $5 donations for anything on campus. Most of the donations went to the three organizations.
Best Buddies took first place, which came with a $2,500 prize in addition to othe money raised through votes. The a capella groups the Gentlemen of the College and the Accidentals won second, and Sigma Alpha Epsilon won third.
Back atthe Halloween event, best buddy Devon’s knight costume awarded him the title of “Sir Devon” for the duration of the event. Asked what makes Best Buddies special, Sir Devon responded with eagerness and pointed toward biology major Tyler Patton ’21, stating, “I got my best buddy over here! Wooh wooh!”
Patton shared Devon’s sentiment, reflecting on his experiences as a buddy.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I got to meet Devon, my best buddy. We do a lot of cool hangouts, like baseball games. I watch him play baseball, which has been a great time.”
Maria Salazar ’23, prospective double major in economics and government, joined the club as a continuation of her involvement in Best Buddies during high school. For her and her new buddy, Kevin, the Halloween celebration took on a new meaning.
“Kevin’s birthday is today!” said Salazar. “This is like a birthday party!”
Kevin’s special birthday request, to listen to Taylor Swift’s Christmas songs, was quickly respected by the celebration’s emcees. The musical festivities were paused, however, to announce the beginning of the celebration’s main event: the costume fashion show.
Co-presidents Sarathy and Hernandez announced best buddy groups as they strolled down their purple-taped runway. Among the characters represented were Liz Kelafante ’21 and her buddy Sam as a butterfly and ninja, respectively; buddy Kate sporting Maleficent’s attire with wand in hand and buddy Kevin as the purple Wiggle. The audience roared with cheers as buddies strutted and twirled, highlighting their hard work of costume compilation and coordination.
For Hernandez, witnessing the day’s festivities reminded her of the original motivation for the club’s founding: its unique ability to bring the community together.
“We realized there was no real way on campus for people who aren’t really experienced with people with disabilities to get to interact with them, to develop, to get to know people with disabilities,” she said. “It’s working really well. A lot of people who are new who don’t have experience with people with disabilities are learning a lot.”
Sarathy added that when she arrived at campus, she noticed an absence that she was confident Best Buddies could fill.
“I think we kind of just saw a vacuum and wanted to fill that with this organization,” said Sarathy.
Events such as the Halloween Party were more than a costume showcase, but a way to break down social barriers, Hernandez said.
“A lot of the time the reason it’s so hard for (people with disabilities) to connect socially is because they need a little more effort to do that,” she said. “They need people to learn what they like and what they don’t like. And sometimes it takes a longer time for them to open up to people. Our club is basically a way for them to break through that initial barrier.”
Each year, she explained, the club’s activities allow her to continue to grow and learn as a student and leader.
“I have a brother with a disability — that part wasn’t new. But I’ve learned that I value human connection and the beautiful things that can come out of it,” Hernandez said.
“It’s made me realize we’re all the same underneath it all.”