Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”
— Albert Camus, author and philosopher
That quote could be the slogan for a vibrant, friendly club at the University of Virginia.
UVA’s chapter of “Best Buddies” helps create meaningful, one-on-one relationships between students and adults who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.
UVA partners with Region Ten to create the pairings. The bonding occurs during the school year at several special events like dances, athletics, cook-outs and plain old chit-chat.
The group’s vice president, third-year student Maeve Curtin, first became enamored with Best Buddies when she was a freshman at George Mason High School in Falls Church.
“My freshman year of high school, I was at a leadership camp weekend,” she said. “I was talking to someone and she was telling me about Best Buddies. Just hearing her talk about it, I thought, ‘There should be something like that at Mason.’”
She helped form the club at her high school and was chapter president her last two years. Curtin was looking forward to staying involved at UVA and was pleased to learn that her incoming class included chapter presidents from other Northern Virginia schools, including Marshall, Oakton and Yorktown high schools.
“We had some really strong leaders coming who were excited about getting involved. UVA always had a chapter, but we basically reinvigorated it,” she said. “Since my first year, we have tripled the membership [to about 120 members]. It’s been really exciting to see it grow.”
Curtin has had the same buddy for the last 2½ years: Linda Miles, who works at UVA’s greenhouses behind Gilmer Hall. “I like my job. I sweep and clean the benches,” she said, talking one afternoon with Curtin at the greenhouses. “I’ve been here for 20 years.”
Miles has a perpetual smile on her face that is infectious. A cancer survivor, she will proudly tell you that she is 63, but feels “like a teenager.”
She and Curtin spend their time eating out, walking, talking and doing Linda’s favorite thing: shopping for jewelry. “She really is all about glitz and glamour – even if we go to Barracks Road for dinner, she will ask if we can go pick out some rings,” Curtin said.
“Sometimes we will just go and hang out on Grounds,” she added. “Over the holidays we just walked around and looked at a lot of the Christmas lights. We went and saw the Rotunda – she loves lights.”
That was a special night for Curtin. “I really did love hanging out with Linda right before finals,” she said. “We went and ate cookies on the Corner. Insomnia Cookies was having a fundraiser for Best Buddies, so it ended up working out really well.”
Curtin, who is both a Jefferson Scholar and an Echols Scholar, said these outings are things she would do with any friend. For Miles, the Best Buddies Valentine’s Day dance in Ern Commons was amazing. She, Curtin and about 80 others danced, sang and cut loose.
Miles was dressed to the nines and clad in jewelry from her vast collection. “I enjoyed myself when I went to the party,” she said. “We danced, didn’t we Maeve?”
Curtin: “We danced so much.”
Miles: “When we got up, everybody else got up.”
Curtin: “Yes, we were the life of the party.”
Miles said she learned her dance moves from “Soul Train,” a popular music and dance television program that saw its heyday in the 1970s. She is already planning her moves for next year’s dance.
“I want us to form a ‘Soul Train’ line and then everybody dance,” she said. “That would be nice. And we can get dressed up.”
Curtin said her experience with Best Buddies is hard to describe. “There’s something that is a little bit hard to fully articulate. It’s just this joy and happiness and enthusiasm, and everyone is just very excited to be together,” she said. “I think in many ways, a lot of the pretense and some of the walls that may be put up in other organizations really come down and it becomes a very relaxed environment where everyone can be themselves and enjoy hanging out.
“I love being part of that,” she said. “It just warms my heart.”
Miles said she loves the program, too, and has a deep fondness for Curtin. “She’s a good person,” she said. “I love to be with her and enjoy my best buddy. And when she’s not [around], I miss her.”