When you look up the Manassas Park Buddy Club in the Manassas Park Community Center’s (MPCC) program directory, the description reads: “The Buddy Club is a special program that is self-facilitated and designed to meet the needs of individuals with developmental/cognitive disabilities. Daily activities include arts and crafts, fitness classes, movies, computers, puzzles and memory games. Buddies also have access to the wellness center and to the pool. There’s a $2.00 drop-in rate for nonmembers, and members pay $20.00 per month.”
The Buddies at MPCC are young men and women, 21 years of age and older, with cognitive and developmental challenges, including autism, Down syndrome, traumatic brain injury (TBI), schizophrenia and fetal alcohol syndrome. Each Buddy has graduated from high school and most members are high-functioning. However, because of a lack of resources in the area, many see themselves as a lost population, largely ignored by mainstream society. So, the Buddies created their own niche.
A Place to Socialize
It all began in 2011, when a local mother named Linda Posten sought a place where her daughter with Down syndrome could socialize with other intellectually disabled (ID) or developmentally disabled (DD) adults. For a while, Posten opened her home to the community but soon found it too small to accommodate the group. In time, Posten met with Tony Thomas, recreation services supervisor at MPCC, who agreed to provide a space for Posten, her daughter and her daughter’s friends to meet.
“This population needed a social outlet to keep them mentally stimulated and we were more than happy to provide the space for this to happen,” explains Thomas. He includes the program in the annual budget because the Buddies are a vital part of the community center. “In addition to me, we have two part-time employees and many volunteers who make it all work,” he adds.
Outside of the Buddy Club, many Buddies also participate in the Take One Drama Troupe, a drama program designed for individuals with special needs. The participants practice weekly and perform in front of an audience twice a year. “There are 11 people in the troupe,” Thomas explains, and “of that, there are five people from the Buddy Club. We encourage the Buddies to take any and all classes and programs available here. Take One Drama is just one activity available that provides structure and socialization opportunities beyond the Buddy Club.”
Since driving themselves is not an option, one of the biggest obstacles for the Buddies is securing transportation to the community center on days when the Buddy Club meets. Some members, like Michael Williamson, live close enough to ride a bike, however, participants can come from as far as 15 miles away — a distance much further than the average community center patron travels.
“I pay a driver to bring me here,” says Buddy Club member Becca Rudolph. “I have been coming to the community center for a long time. At first I was only a general member, but then I heard about the Buddy Club, so I starting coming to that. Now, I work as a part-time employee for the program, and I wouldn’t know what to do without these guys.”
Theresa Swival, a part-time recreation leader for the Buddy Club, says she sees the impact the Buddy Club has on the participants. Many of the Buddies stay at home all day when the Buddy Club does not meet. “I often hear them complain about doing nothing all day on their days off,” says Swival. Collette Davis, an attendant for one of the Buddy Club members, agrees. Davis shared that they have been coming to the community center for three years and she sees firsthand the impact when the Buddy Club is closed. “My client’s routine is out of sync on those days and those are the times he acts out,” she says.
“When the Buddies are here, they always have something to do and they feel needed,” explains Swival. On Mondays, they have yoga; Tuesdays, athletics in the gymnasium or supervised swimming in the pool; and Thursdays, they work on science or art activities that are based around seasons and holidays.
Socializing for some of the Buddies isn’t limited to planned Buddy Club projects. They celebrate Buddy Club members’ birthdays and many meet outside of the Buddy Club. What started out as a meeting space has turned into a thriving community of friendship and support.
Buddy Club member Mary Harvey works part-time for a local doctor’s office, but never works on days when the Buddy Club meets. “I feel happy when I am here because all of my friends are here,” she says. “I really love playing Buddy Bingo and I love sharing our artwork on the Buddy Club bulletin board so that everyone here can see what we are doing.” Sharon Jasper, another Buddy Club member, chimes in: “I really like the arts and crafts projects because I like to draw and to color. I like my friends and this place really gives me peace.” Jasper also participates in Take One Drama and has been involved in the program since she started attending the Buddy Club.
Filling a Vital Need
One of Swival’s concerns is the ever-present waitlist for the Buddy Club. To her, the long waitlist symbolizes the high demand for more therapeutic program opportunities in the area. At the same time, she knows that the waitlist is a testament to the success of the program.
“In addition to staffing requirements, we are also bound by the limitations set by our local fire code for the room the Buddy Club uses for the majority of its activities,” Thomas explains before adding, “The success of our program proves we are filling a vital need for this population with our socially stimulating programs. We’d love to see other agencies in our area offer programs similar to the Buddy Club. The demand is there, you just need dedicated people and a welcoming space.”
Maria Bosackis the Writer/Content Specialist for the Department of Parks and Recreation, City of Manassas Park.