Morgan Heartsfield (left) and Best Buddies member Dana Brown (right).

By Laura Marzullo

Best Buddies in Tampa is a nonprofit organization where individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities are included through friendship, leadership and integrated employment. Recently, its Adult Friendship Chapter blossomed and has been accommodated for adults with and without disabilities within Hillsborough, Polk, Pasco and Pinellas Counties.

Best Buddies has been incorporated within the school system for many years.

“The Friendship Program only allowed in school connections, which has made it very difficult for a lot of our participants to develop authentic relationships past the point of graduation,” said Morgan Heartsfield, deputy director of development at Best Buddies International.

With the creation of the Adult Friendship Chapter, adults are able to continue building lifelong bonds with other participants and put an end to social isolation.

The chapter consists of events that happen every month, in-person and virtually. This allows everyone to become familiar with each other as well as get involved in the activities. The goal of the chapter is for the individuals to develop a connection with another member, who either has or does not have a disability. These matches are based on personality, age, hobbies, likes and dislikes in order to create a genuine friendship.

“We want to make sure that the friendships are not forced, and that they would genuinely want to hangout regardless of their affiliation with the chapter,” stated Heartsfield.

The members in the Adult Friendship Program often struggle with social isolation, which was made worse when COVID-19 discouraged millions to go out of their way to connect with others. Unfortunately, some of the participants have already been living with social distancing throughout their life. The adults who join this chapter will be given the chance to experience firsthand the importance of friendship, inclusion, kindness and encouragement.

“I truly believe that nobody was made to navigate the gray areas of life alone, and that there is so much power in community,” said Heartsfield.

Want to join the fun and are older than 23? Sign up by communicating with the program manager of community engagement, Dean Mesick, at Best Buddies Tampa is located at 4532 W. Kennedy Blvd., #287 in Tampa. For more information, call 254-9025, ext. 303.

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