Jessica saw a need for an organization that gives opportunities to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Rome, so she founded one, and I talked to her.
Name: Jessica Nicole Gray
Where are you from? Born in New York City, raised in Redding, Connecticut.
For how long have you lived in Rome? Since the fall of 2009 with an 8-month hiccup in Washington D.C.
Which restaurant did you eat in last?I have fond memories of Oasi della Birra in Testaccio.
Which club/bar did you frequent last? Technically the last bar I went to was La Libreria Cafeteria Frane. My default answer would be San Calisto in Trastevere.
What do you in Rome, job-wise? My rent-paying job is that of an English teacher in public high schools and middle schools.
What is the name of the organization you started in Rome? Best Buddies Italia Onlus. ‘Onlus’ being the Italian equivalent of a non-profit org.
Can you describe a little bit what this organization does? The goal of the organization is to encourage a global volunteer movement that creates opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities or IDD. It is to encourage a socially integrated community via fostering long lasting 1-1 friendships, integrated employment, and leadership development. Best Buddies’ programs positively impact hundreds of thousands of individuals with and without disabilities around the world.
What urged you to become part of this organization? I first became an advocate of its mission almost 10 years ago. My main motive was to make sure that there was a stimulating and socially integrated after-school program for special needs kids already in place for my little sister, who is severely mentally disabled, when she was to start high school.
What made you want to start a chapter in Rome? Towards the end of this summer I found myself with some free time and a desire to volunteer. In other words, to pour my soul into the Roman community, with which I am so much in love. I wanted to work with people with intellectual disabilities and consequently submitted volunteer participant applications to various organizations. To my surprise Best Buddies was nonexistent in Rome. I wrote to Best Buddies International Headquarters in Miami telling them that I was in Rome and available to dedicate my spare time towards the potential development of an Italian Best Buddies Headquarters. Two months later they flew me out to Berlin to participate in the Global Staff Forum… and voilà … now it’s my job to do it all.
Are there other chapters in Italy? Not yet!
How do you think that Best Buddies helps people with disabilities? According to the World Heath Organization, nearly 3 out of every 100 people in the world have IDD, making this the largest disability group – and one that is highly marginalized. Best Buddies works to combat social distresses and especially alienation. By introducing a person with IDD to a peer without IDD in a supported, positive setting as we do in our Citizens Program, High School, Middle School, and College Programs, we combat loneliness and isolation while increasing society’s understanding and acceptance of people with IDD. Our programs provide people with IDD with the resources they need to support themselves and learn the valuable social skills that give them the necessary self-confidence and belief in their own capabilities to develop positive relationships, succeed in school, and begin to successfully explore roles such as employee, co-worker, and community member. It is the next step for the Disability Rights Movement; teaching people with IDD the skills they need to successfully advocate for themselves and others with IDD.
Do you think that Italy, specifically Rome has a need for an organization like Best Buddies? Of course! I have been working as an English teacher in the Roman public school system for almost a year and I have not once seen a student with IDD. How many intellectually or developmentally disabled persons have you seen walking about Rome? The availability of family and educational support for people with IDD is minimal, partly due to social factors such as lack of awareness. I hate to think about all the children and adults with IDD who are most definitely left alone at home and are thereby excluded from basic social interaction which promotes mental development and greater adaptive skills.
Do you think Italy, specifically Rome takes adequate measures to take care of its people with disabilities? Absolutely not. Italy is a breathtakingly beautiful country filled with wonderful people, but it has remained far behind the norm in terms of social progression, acceptance, and awareness in comparison to other countries of the first world.
Have you encountered any difficulty in setting up the organization’s chapter in Rome? The greatest difficulty I believe is yet to come, and that is one of community engagement. Reaching out to the schools and universities will be the most difficult task as the Italian public school system tends to be one of tradition and protocol, and the extracurricular activities are minimal or nonexistent. The sad economic situation will surely hand us an abundance of difficulty – especially with the austerity measures of the new administration.
What do the volunteers of Best Buddies do? When they sign up, what is expected of them? That depends to what extent they wish to contribute. Since we are in our initial phases, help is needed left and right. Volunteers have built our website, have designed our marketing materials, are writing our grant proposals and are riding around Rome with Best Buddies stickers on the backs of their scooters. Both the ‘buddy’ and the volunteer who are successfully matched in a 1-1 friendship must commit to keep in touch at least once a week through phone calls, e-mails or seeing each other in person. They must get together on their own time to socialize at least twice a month. Usually we ask that this engagement last for an academic year but as we are starting mid-year the current commitment requested is for 6 months.
How can someone get involved if they are interested? Email me firstname.lastname@example.org
Are there any events or programs you recently held? On the 29th of February 2012 we hosted our inaugural invent in which we launched Best Buddies Italia with the Citizens Program as its first initiative.
Do you have any upcoming projects or events? We plan to host another event in about 1 month with the goal to reach out to more people and possibly even collaborate with other organizations in the local community. In terms of upcoming projects, creating successful matches, developing all seven of the Best Buddies Programs, and the constant goal of expansion will continuously keep us busy.