Whitman Buddy Program Celebrates During Buddy Ball


Tywen Kelly

Photo by Tywen Kelly.

Lane Barton

Reid Ballroom was a joyous location filled with music, food, and dancing on Dec. 4 as Whitman students and Walla Walla community members enjoyed the winter edition of the Buddy Ball put on by the Whitman Buddy Program.

The Buddy Program, which aims to form one-on-one relations between students and adults in the area who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, is now in its fifth year of fostering friendships between “buddy” pairs.

“Without a doubt the unique and wonderful friendships that are created through the Buddy Program are the biggest benefits. Whitman buddies and community buddies learn so much from one another and gain a rich relationship that is mutually beneficial,” SEC Community Service Coordinator Abby Juhasz said in an email to The Pioneer.

The Buddy Program started in 2011 after work from Michaela Lambert ’14 organizing students and activities and now-Board President of the Walla Walla Valley Disability Network Carla Nibler finding adults from the area to participate. After a year as an ASWC Club modeled after guidelines from Best Buddies International, the Buddy Program became an official community service program of the Student Engagement Center. Since then, the program has involved anywhere from 44 to 56 people each year. Those involved tout the program’s ability to personalize relationships between buddies.

“I would say it humanizes and normalizes disabilities. I think that would be the most important thing that it offers – a humanizing friendship with someone who happens to have a disability,” said senior Jeremy Nolan.

The program features bi-weekly activities for all buddies ranging from bowling to arts and crafts to gardening. Individual buddy pairs will often communicate via text, Facebook or phone and set up events like going to the movies or getting pizza even more frequently. Whitman’s SEC Intern for the Buddy Program, junior Megan Rocha, notes that these activities make the program less about Whitties helping people with disabilities and more about buddies helping each other.

“This is just hanging out with people. We’re not trying to save anyone or mentor anyone – we’re just here to hang out and be together. We’re serving a need that can often be forgotten about, the very basic need to have relationships with other people,” Rocha said.

In fact, many students and community members note that Whitman buddies may receive just as much benefit from the program as their community buddies.

“Our kids have a lot to offer and I’m sure many of the students would agree that they have learned a lot from their buddies.  Warm hugs, a big smile and laughter [are] enriching and from the smallest most infinitesimal things come enjoyment,” said Nibler in an email to The Pioneer

That idea of mutual benefit is epitomized by the Buddy Ball, an annual event that is often the highlight of the semester for all buddies. Although structured as a formal dance, Rocha notes that it is something that becomes a very loose and warm event after buddies have spent a full semester getting to know each other.

“It’s this formal get-together where everyone gets dressed up and we all go hang out in the Reid Ballroom and…it’s essentially what you would think of as a prom, but better…Everyone gets together and is so excited to be celebrating. It’s [a] warm and festive thing,” Rocha said.

The popularity of events like Buddy Ball represents the ever-present interest of community members to participate in the Buddy Program; as such, the program is always looking for new Whitman students interested in the opportunity to spend time with a new community friend. 

“If people are interested in signing up for it, there should be signups again the spring…People should know that if they want to join the program there’s no prior experience needed, we’re excited to have anyone and everyone on board, especially people who might have second language skills or sign language skills,” Nolan said.

Photo by Tywen Kelly.
Photo by Tywen Kelly.