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Best Buddies and the Best Ride

Anthony Gomez
By T.J. MURPHY
Triathlete Magazine

(clockwise from top left)
Carl Lewis, Katie Mead and actress Maureen McCormick; the B-52's; Anthony Shriver; Best Buddies spokesman Eric Matthes and Meade; Maureen McCormick and Best Buddies competitor, Ian Clemence-Shreiner
There are bike rides and then there are
bike rides. A bike ride can provide a basic jolt of training effect, but it can, of course, do much more. It can offer a bucolic escape from the mental wear and tear of strip-mall scenery that inundates our daily lives. A bike ride can also pry open a few hours or more for a weekend social life—or, as one triathlete phrased it, “to spend some time with your buds.”

There’s also the kind of bike ride I did with 900 others last May—the Best Buddies Challenge, a bike event supporting a major charity. Held near Boston, the Ninth Annual Audi Best Buddies Hyannis Port Challenge offered rider-fundraisers the choice between a 20-mile ride or a full century.

The century riders woke early and rode from Boston, and the 20-milers started in Sandwich, both groups riding through winding country roads to an elaborate finish area at Craigsville beach near the famous Kennedy Compound.

The event exists due to the charity work of the Kennedys. Through his understanding of the obstacles that a person faces when he or she is mentally impaired, Anthony Shriver created Best Buddies in 1989. “My family has been a profound source of inspiration, particularly my mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, with her early commitment to persons with intellectual disabilities, and my late aunt, Rosemary Kennedy, who was intellectually disabled herself,” Anthony Shriver says. “Rosemary helped me appreciate that everyone is capable of something exceptional, especially with the support and encouragement of friends and family. In Rosemary’s case, she swam better than anyone else in my family.”

Growing up, Shriver was affected by the observation that, while unable to perform many of the basic functions of normal life—driving a car, having a job or simply putting herself to bed—Rosemary Shriver felt free of her intellectual restraints and actually excelled in the pool. Shriver’s conception of Best Buddies, as both a charity that supports the intellectually challenged and a network that enables friendships in a spirit similar to Big Brothers, was based on this experience.

“I started Best Buddies when I was a student at Georgetown, and amazingly it took on a life of its own,” Shriver remarks. “We now have more than 1,400 chapters in 40 countries and hope to expand to 50 countries and impact 500,000 people worldwide by 2010,” he continues. “Through it all, the mission of Best Buddies has remained the same: to enhance the lives of people with intellectual disabilities through one-to-one friendships. We’ve simply expanded its scope as our organization has grown during the past 20 years. For example, Best Buddies now has a jobs program, which provides opportunities for integrated employment to people with intellectual disabilities, helping them become further independent through vocation.” Shriver added that one-on-one friendships supplement this independence.

Three criteria define an intellectual disability: a childhood condition, an IQ below 75 points and limited “adaptive” skills, such as the ability to support oneself, maintain a job and effectively communicate with others. Intellectual disabilities affect an estimated 6.2 to 7.5 million Americans, as reported in the 1990 census. Worldwide, the number is closer to 200 million. Several hundred causes of intellectual disabilities are known. The primary three are down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome and Fragile X.

An inherited condition, Fragile X is the most common cause of mental impairment and the most common cause of autism. The severity of the condition varies. Nearly 90 percent of all cases are considered mild, while the remaining 10 percent involve severe challenges to basic functionality. Early intervention, support and education offer considerable hope to those who are more severely afflicted, enabling them the opportunity to pursue a satisfying life.

At Craigsville Beach after the bike ride, the Buddies—intellectually challenged men, women and kids—competed in a variety of bike criteriums, including races on tandem bikes teamed with celebrities, such as New England Patriot football players Matt Light, Stephen Neal, Dan Koppen and Nick Kaczur; track superstar Carl Lewis; and Miss USA. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady assumed the role of race announcer as the Buddies roared around the track, jarring any preconceptions a person might harbor about the limitations and lifestyle of the intellectually challenged

Across the road, under a tent that could cover a small town, official sponsor Audi hosted the post-event party that included a clambake feast, open bars at either end of the venue, a gym-sized dance floor, and entertainment by a band composed of. Automaker Audi not only sponsored the party but also paid for everything else, channeling fundraising dollars directly to the cause. “Because Audi pays for all of the expenses, one hundred percent of the contributions goes to the charity,” Shriver says.

Seattle resident Eric Matthes—his buddy is Carl Lewis, who has supported the program for 16 years—is a spokesman for Best Buddies. He gave two speeches over the weekend, each with deliberate phrases and emphatic body language. “I am a self-advocate,” he said. “I choose to come here and celebrate friendship.” He told his story, recollecting the moment in kindergarten when he was first called retarded and made aware of the false division society had created between him and “normal” people. An emotional charge linked his words to the audience, many of whose members were intellectually challenged persons. “I am not my disability,” Matthes declared, and turned to speak directly to the Buddies. “There is nothing stopping you from living your dreams.”

Despite the large numbers, the award festivities had the distinct vibe of a family reunion, and Anthony Shriver, both a cheerleader and tireless stage director, avoided all forms of corporate-stylized speech as he moved the show along. “I truly believe that through the simple act of friendship, society possesses a powerful force that can dramatically enhance the lives of people with intellectual disabilities,” Shriver says. “And volunteers equally experience the gifts from such one-to-one friendships.”

To join the bike ride, participants must raise a minimum amount of dollars. The next Challenge takes place at Hearst Castle in California on September 6. Three rides are on the ticket: 15 miles, 100k or 100 miles. The early-bird minimum fundraising amount is $1700, which warrants a jersey, gift bag, tour of Hearst Castle and admission to the BBQ and concert at the Hearst Ranch. Who’s playing? The Black-Eyed Peas. Raise $3,500 and an invite to a VIP cocktail party hosted by Maria Shriver, Anthony’s sister and the First Lady of California, is included. Raise $10,000 or more and there’s also a Friday night VIP affair at the castle, also with Maria Shriver, plus a VIP dessert and dance after the concert.

At the Craigsville Beach party, notable fundraisers got their picture taken with Tom Brady. Anthony Shriver managed everything, even making sure award winners were careful ascending the stage. “Steps, steps, steps,” he pointed out to one eager fundraiser. Brady took over duties and directed a unique form of the two-minute drill, drumming up more than $20,000 in contributions from the crowd that would pay for Buddies to go to a summer leadership camp. A $1,000-contribution paid all the expenses for one Buddy. After gathering pledges from the audience, Brady matched the sum out of his own wallet and brought the total to $50,000.

Brady is deeply involved in several charity organizations, one of which is Best Buddies. Once Brady took an eight-day trip to Africa—Uganda and Ghana, in particular, organized by Debt AIDS Trade Africa—and said it had a profound effect on him. “It gave me perspective,” Brady said. “At the end of the day, what I do for a living is toss a football.” Supporting charities “is something I get a lot out of personally. It improves my life.” In addition to pulling duty during the Challenge weekend, Brady is involved in the friendship network part of the program. His Buddy is Katie Meade from Iowa, and the two have been friends for several years.

“We can help these individuals be seen, heard and hired,” Shriver said, adding that the friendship program is invaluable to everyone involved, and has a domino effect. “Students who participate in Best Buddies become adults who raise children with a new perspective on intellectual disabilities, based on compassion and integration. They become employers who understand the undeniable value of hiring people with intellectual disabilities, who have proven to be loyal, committed and capable. But Eric’s words sum it up best: ‘I want to show the world that even though I have a disability, I can do anything I put my mind to.’”

The entry form to the Audi Best Buddies Challenge at Hearst Castle promises more than just a bike ride and party. By becoming involved, you can create a smile, give someone the gift of friendship and make a difference.
Date: 9/30/2008
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