This past Friday night, I had the privilege to host the 9th Annual Best Buddies Gala at the Omni in downtown Nashville. It was an amazing night! Best Buddies was started by Anthony Shiver (who's mom started the Special Olympics) to provide friends for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It is an incredible organization, and it was an amazing night!
It was 10 years ago that I stood in a hospital room with Anneliese and Chandler Barron after their son Matthew was born. Matthew was born with Downs Syndrome as well as many physical ailments. I remember standing by Matthew's bed as he is hooked to all kinds of tubes, and praying with Chandler and Anneliese for Matthew to live. Unbeknownst to me at that time, Anneliese was praying for Matthew to not only live but for him to one day have friends. She knew what life could be like for kids with special needs. It broke her heart to think about it, so she did something about it. She called Anthony Shiver and Best Buddies.
At that time there was no Middle Tennessee chapter of Best Buddies. When Anneliese called, Best Buddies said they would need about $250,000 to start one. As Matthew physically began to heal from his many surgeries, Anneliese came to our Community Group one night and asked if we would pray with her about raising money to bring Best Buddies to Middle TN. Anneliese had recently given her life to Christ, and God was preparing her for this very moment. As we prayed, we could have never dreamed what God would do.
Within a short amount of time, Anneliese raised all the money and they then asked her to be the Regional Director for Middle Tennessee. As only God can do, Barry Trotz, the coach of the Nashville Predators at the time, also had a child with Downs Syndrome. Anneliese connected with Barry, and God blessed in a way that only He can.
Lisa, my wife, and I have been to all 9 of the Best Buddies Galas. What struck me so clearly this year was how Best Buddies is changing the culture. Before Best Buddies, it seemed the general culture was that kids with special needs were left out, left alone and even bullied for being different. This still happens today in many schools across our country and the world. In some places in the world, children with special needs are put into orphanages and left alone. But, can you imagine life without a friend? Without anyone who cares about you except a parent, maybe a sibling and a paid worker? Can you imagine eating lunch alone in a school cafeteria or celebrating your birthday with only your mom and dad? Can you imagine being bullied and called names for being different. Yet, this was the life for many children before Best Buddies.
Even though we have a long way to go, today things are different. Kids with special needs are appreciated and even celebrated. They have a "buddy" who sits with them at lunch and even takes them out after school. They have friends. In some schools, children with special needs are voted Homecoming Queen or King. It's amazing! In fact, there are many schools where there is even a waiting list in order just to be a "buddy." There is a Best Buddies prom at Bridgestone Arena that is one of the highlights of the year for everyone involved! It is incredible - and, it is culture change.
Best Buddies continues beyond school age as well. They continue to provide buddies for adults with special needs. Watching this is incredible. Pekka Rennie, who is one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, has a buddy - Mike. Mike is 50 years-old, and he goes to many of the Predators games. You'll see him high-fiving the team when they go onto the ice, and he is usually there in the locker room. Pekka even took him to the Best Buddies prom, and they had a blast - especially when Brett Eldridge showed up to sing! Roman Josi and many of the other Predators give so much of their time and energy to help every child and adult in Middle Tennessee know that they have people who care about them.
I am so thankful for Best Buddies and the amazing work that is being done. I am thankful for Anneliese and for her belief that she could make a difference. I am thankful that my kids have friends with special needs who they love. And, I am thankful for a God who values every person. Everyone is unique and special. And, everyone should have opportunities to experience the joy of Christ and the deep blessing of friendship.
Today, just 10 years later, Best Buddies is in over 100 middle schools, high schools and universities in Middle Tennessee, and this year they are launching friendship programs in elementary schools. This is truly changing the culture because as these kids grow up having "buddies" and realizing that every person matters, think about the impact on communities, workplaces, our nation and even our entire world. And, Matthew, that little boy who was in the hospital hooked to the tubes when he was born, is a healthy and vibrant 10-year old boy so full of joy and life. He has more friends than he can count and more love in his heart than you can imagine. Praise God!
By God's grace, the culture is changing...
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