Best buddies can be hard to come by, but Jade Dittaro found hers quite easily, and almost by accident.
After graduating from Fort Frances High School two years ago, Dittaro began preparing for her new life in London, Ontario at the University of Western Ontario. As a faithful volunteer at Rainycrest Home for the Aged here, she was hoping to find fulfilling volunteer work there.
“I volunteered at Rainycrest and I loved it. They’re so happy and pleasant,” she said of the residents there. “My volunteer work is very important to me.”
While searching for volunteer options on Western’s web site, Dittaro found an organization called Best Buddies.
“As soon as I saw it, I thought, that has my name written all over it. Nothing quite appealed to me like this did,” the 20-year-old said.
The Best Buddies program pairs up volunteers with intellectually disabled people from the community. The goal, quite simply, is for the pair to become friends and to spend time together like friends do.
The program requires a commitment of two face-to-face visits a month, and contact—such as a phone call—once a week, minimum.
Dittaro applied for the program when she arrived at Western, and was soon paired up with Craig Lamperd, a man in his mid-30s, living in a group home with three other intellectually disabled adults, with full-time staff supervision.
It didn’t take long for the Fort Frances native and the Londoner to hit it off.
“Craig’s got such awesome energy,” she said. “He’ll go in the mall and he’ll tell people it’s his birthday just so they’ll sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him.” He usually does this several months after his actual birth date, she added laughing.
Volunteers are encouraged to do simple activities, like playing soccer in the park, or hanging out at each others’ homes.
“Forming a friendship isn’t supposed to involve a lot of money,” Dittaro noted.
“We just do the most random things, and it’s fun,” she continued. “I volunteer at his bowling night, so I get to watch him bowl. Then I’ll sit with him when he has ice cream after.”
Some of Lamperd’s favourite activities include listening to Dittaro play guitar, having her teach him a few chords, or driving around in her car.
“Going for a ride in the car with the sunroof open, we’ll base a whole day around that,” she laughed. “He’ll even run errands with me.”
Perhaps the most adventurous thing the pair have done is gone to Canada’s Wonderland together.
“He had me on things I probably never would have went on. I’m kind of afraid of heights,” she admitted.
The two also participated in a Best Buddies talent show, where they sang “Picture” by Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock.
“Craig loves singing karaoke,” she laughed.
“It’s actually a real friendship. It’s cool,” she added.
While Dittaro is in Fort Frances for the summer, the two will exchange calls, letters, and postcards. They also have an exciting adventure to look forward to.
Dittaro will be joining Lamperd, one of his housemates, and his worker on a four-day trip to California in September where they will attend a taping of “The Price is Right.”
A devoted viewer of the daytime game show, one of Lamperd’s life-long dreams has been to meet the show’s host Bob Barker.
To save money for the trip, he has been collecting pop cans, Dittaro explained.
“He gets paid per pound of aluminum. I never knew you could get so much money from collecting pop cans,” she said.
He has already collected nearly enough to pay for his trip entirely. Lamperd’s parents offered to help Dittaro pay her way so she could attend with him.
Lamperd’s worker contacted the show, and the group will receive special attention when they go.
“We have the producer’s box seats,” Dittaro said.
She, too, admits to being a big fan of the show.
“I always watched it with my Nana when I was little,” she said. “I base my schedule around ‘Price is Right.’”
While Lamperd cannot be a contestant on the show, the trip will still be an exciting one. Besides the game show, the four will also get to visit Disneyland.
“I’m going to miss school but I don’t really care,” Dittaro said.
The young biology student will find herself in a special role when she returns to Western in the fall. She will be one of two campus coordinators for the Best Buddies program at the university.
“I’ve been training all year to be campus coordinator,” she said.
Following her first year in the program, the executive approached her and asked if she would like to be more involved.
Best Buddies is a national non-profit organization, and started primarily with university chapters, though it is beginning to expand to high schools as well.
The chapter at Western has about 80 student volunteers lined up for the fall, making it one of the biggest chapters in Canada.
In London, Best Buddies works in conjunction with Community Living London, which finds intellectually disabled adults interested in being paired with a buddy. Community Living London is funded by the United Way.
“We try to match the buddy and the student as well as we can. We’ve been pretty successful,” she said.
While they are always pleased to have new volunteers, Dittaro noted it is important to interview potential volunteers to be sure they are getting involved for the right reasons, and that they will be committed to the program, and their buddy.
“This is a real person. They have feelings. You can’t just not call,” she said. “You are impacting them in such a positive way. Not many of them get to have just a normal friendship.”
Dittaro has some first-hand experience there. She has two uncles and an aunt who are intellectually disabled. One is a resident at Rainycrest, while the other two live in a home together.
Dittaro and her mother Donna enjoy visiting them making sure they have everything they need.
“My mom’s such a natural caregiver,” she said.
In the summer, she will often sleep over at the house her aunt and uncle share.
“They’re very high functioning. They cook and clean, they have a dog,” she said. “There’s never been a holiday they haven’t been there. My life would be so different without them. They’re so much fun. They and Craig have so much in common.”
The goal of the Best Buddies program is to include intellectually disabled people in the community as much as possible. Since it is also a personal goal of her own, Dittaro noted that’s likely why she was attracted to the program in the first place.
“They’re really not that different from us. People need to understand that. That’s the only way they’re going to be included in the community,” she stressed. “Our main goal is inclusion.”
Dittaro got the opportunity to play an active role in the promotion of Best Buddies this year.
She and Lamperd where invited to speak at a breakfast hosted by the United Way and Kellogg’s. They spoke to the crowd of about 250 people and told them about the Best Buddies program.
The London Free Press ran a photo of the pair at the breakfast. From there, Dittaro was interviewed by the campus newspaper at Western, as well as the campus radio station.
This lead to Dittaro and Lamperd being invited to participate in the 2005 United Way campaign for the London-Middlesex area.
“There was a photo shoot at my house of us doing one of the things we love to do, which is playing guitar,” Dittaro said. The photo is featured in a United Way pamphlet outlining the various programs they fund.
“Last week we shot our portion of the campaign video, playing guitar in the park,” she added. The video will be used for fundraising in larger businesses.
Meanwhile, Dittaro just completed her second year in Honours Biology. She will be writing the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) this summer, plans to eventually go to medical school and open a family practice
But Lamperd and the Best Buddies program is also an integral part of her future plans.
“It’s just cool I can be a part of it. I feel kind of special,” she said.