The Buddy Club: A Special Program for Special People

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By Emma Young

Looking to make friends in an accepting atmosphere? Want the very core of who you are – quirks, faults, talents, skills and abilities – celebrated along with your birthdays? Wishing you could find a relaxed and friendly community of diverse people who relate to your cognitive/developmental disability with whom to socialize? Visit the Manassas Park Community Center (MPCC) on any given Monday, Tuesday or Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., for the Buddy Club, “a safe haven for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults to come out and have fun,” as Theresa [last name withheld], one of two MPCC staff members who run the program, described, and you’ve found your dream realized.

Josh hangs out near the themed craft wall.

Josh hangs out near the themed craft wall.

“We’re an extremely friendly group,” said Becca Rudolph, a former Buddy Club member turned MPCC employee, who now works alongside Theresa. As soon as someone new enters the club, the members proactively greet and ask about him or her and then tell the newcomer about themselves. Josh [last name withheld], a Buddy Club member, excitedly approached a newcomer with a disarming greeting. “How are you doing?” he said. “Did you know I like to yodel?”

There are people all around the MPCC Teen Center, the central hub where the group meets. Some are sitting on couches watching a movie on the large-screen television, some are doing crafts and puzzles, some are playing cards and chatting, and some are snoozing in a corner. “Some are out exercising,” Theresa explained. Buddy Club members have full access to MPCC facilities, including water aerobics and yoga classes, and members have the freedom to choose activities. “Lunchtime is at 12, and they all bring their lunches. It’s the only time we specifically get them all together.”

Buddy Club member Mary Harvey comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “It’s fun, and I like to interact with the rest of the buddies,” she said. “Theresa and Becca are my best friends as well as the rest of the people here. I like to chat with everybody, watch movies, play games and do art projects.”

“I started coming as a member a couple years ago,” Rudolph explained, “and it morphed into a volunteer role. Then I kind of fell into employment. It works out perfectly, and they’re very accommodating to my needs. I have made incredibly good friends, and I have a sense of purpose to get up in the morning and go do something. No one questions another [person]. We greet everyone. We accept everyone for who they are, quirks and all. Everyone is pretty chill about everything. People have their moments…” Rudolph said. Theresa interjects, “Everybody in life has their moments. We all try to help each other out.”

Dan [last name withheld], who joined the Buddy Club more than two years ago, explained what he most loves about it. “I came here, and I [made]good friends. Theresa is a good friend. I help her out when she needs my help. We do regular yoga on Mondays and use the swimming pool and the hot tub,” he noted. “If you need anything, the Lone Ranger is at your service.”

The Buddy Club’s only problem? The club is exclusive, limited by space and fire code restrictions, and therefore has a waiting list. “This is a program to provide accessibility,” described Tony Thomas, Recreation Services Supervisor for the Parks and Recreation Department of Manassas Park. “There is nothing else in this area to provide socialization opportunities after high school,” he said. Members come from Woodbridge, Gainesville, Dale City, and Lake Ridge, noted Harvey, in addition to Manassas Park and Manassas. “Some have even come from Loudoun County,” stated Thomas. “We’re thrilled to offer the program. We just wish other jurisdictions would emulate it and offer this kind of opportunity.” Current space allows for only about 30 persons at one time to attend. “We wish we could go around to different community centers and present, so they could host their own programs. There is a need,” Theresa said.

Renee does a puzzle

Renee does a puzzle

To become a Buddy Club member, your name and contact number are placed on a waiting list. When space becomes available, “We invite them to come hang out and see if they like it,” Theresa described. If they want to join after visiting, there is a minimal fee of $2/day for drop-ins for Buddy Club members on days the program is offered and has space available or a “Buddy Membership” for $20/month, which guarantees Buddy Club members access anytime the MPCC is open whether the Club is in session or not. Fees are kept low because costs for supplies and classes are absorbed in the Manassas Park Parks and Recreation Department budget.

Volunteers can also participate. “We are always looking for volunteers to come help,” Thomas said. “Help the staff, play games with the buddies, or if a volunteer has a special skill or hobby they want to share or teach an activity, we’ll be open to that,” he noted. For example, Theresa described the large birthday celebrations they have celebrating each month’s member birthdays. “A lot of people come. We have cake and games. It’s a lot of fun, and volunteers are always needed,” she said.

If you’re lucky enough, you’ll someday get to work at the Buddy Club. “We hang out and sit here, play games, and gossip and chat. We have great parties,” Theresa said. “I’ve got the best friends around.”

For more information about the Buddy Club, contact the Manassas Park Community Center at 703-335-8872 or visit the Manassas Park Community Center Buddy Club Membership Information Page.

Emma Young (eyoung@princewilliamliving.com) is a freelance writer and Montclair resident who is both astounded by and grateful for the welcoming reception she received at the Buddy Club. 

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