GLEN ROCK - With the help of a fundraising gala in November, a local teen is preparing to open a Glen Rock High School chapter of Best Buddies International, an organization that assists people with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD).

The volunteer-run nonprofit, headquartered in Miami, Florida, works to forge leadership opportunities and one-to-one friendships among the 200 million people with IDD around the globe.

Holly Goshin, a Glen Rock resident and director of Leadership Academy at Best Buddies International, began her involvement with the organization after graduating American University in Washington, D.C. Having an older brother born with a traumatic brain injury, she felt it was her calling to work in the nonprofit sector, and, in 1994, she secured a job at the international offices of the Special Olympics, fatefully at the time Best Buddies had begun its regional presence at the National’s Capital. Seeing the gala bear the fruits of the nonprofit’s labor after two decades was sentimental for her.

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“[It was] incredible to see the hard work of the board and the staff and volunteers to put this thing together, such a professional and impressive evening,” Goshin said during a phone interview earlier this month. “My feeling is, I came on at such a great time. It was really when this whole process was coming to the height of its success in getting New Jersey off the ground. Vallye has been working such a long time and putting so much into it. [It was a] last push to making it happen.”

At Glen Rock High School, Goshin’s daughter Emma is in the process of opening up a chapter at the school. At an information session this past month, 30 students showed to inquire about filling out applications for club officers.

“Seeing so many students show up for the first Best Buddies organizational meeting at Glen Rock High School was very encouraging and I am excited to see the impact it will make on our school and community,” said Emma in an email. “This is the beginning of something very special.”

With the assistance of the November fundraiser, the organization now has enough funds to open up an office in New Jersey.

Fourteen individuals of Best Buddies New Jersey raised the $250,000 needed to open up the office, allowing it to officially expand the operation in the Garden State, Vallye Adams, director of expansion, said.

The 14 individuals were recognized as champions of the Best Buddies’ mission by the Advisory Board in New Jersey at a gala held at the Brownstone in Paterson on Nov. 3.

Adams said members of the nonprofit hope to hire its first staff members in January. Though a location has not yet been identified, she anticipates a ribbon cutting of the Best Buddies New Jersey office in the spring.

“Our advisory boards are working together to identify schools for friendship chapters to be open. We have current employers that we’ve begun working with as far as placements in our job program,” Adams said.

Last month’s gala, a sold-out affair, ushered in 350 guests, dignitaries of which included representatives from Janssen Neuroscience and Otsuka American Pharmaceutical Inc., student volunteers and “Real Housewives of New Jersey” stars Kathy and Richard Wakile.

The celebration, which Adams called an “elegant” affair, was organized in support of the nonprofit which was established in 1989 by philanthropist Anthony Shriver with the goal to help individuals with IDD create meaningful friendships with their peers, live independently, find successful jobs and feel a valued member of society, according to the Best Buddies International official website. Best Buddies currently operates accredited programs in more than 50 countries around the world from Brazil to Northern Ireland. Six years ago, the volunteer-run organization established a goal to open offices in all 50 states in America, expand into 100 countries impacting all stakeholders by the completion of 2020.

The fundraising gala featured a wide variety of entertainment which included performances by reVoiced, an a cappella group noted for headlining the Royal Caribbean and also made Best Buddies International their official charity. While they were crooning Jason Mraz's “I Won’t Give Up,” Lisa Smith, a global ambassador who has Down Syndrome, provided sign language. 

“It [the song] resonated with the entire mission,” Adams explained. "We were intending to reach our goal. We did reach that goal because we didn’t give up.”

Also in attendance was Kathryn "Katie" Meade, an American model considered to be "the first model with Down Syndrome to become the face of a beauty campaign. Meade delivered an inspirational speech about how Best Buddies has changed her life, after having been picked-on for being different. Meade’s face now graces the covers of magazines in “face of beauty” ads and trots the globe to share her message of the importance of inclusion.

“Her testament to the impact of Best Buddies was truly inspiring,” Adams said. “Our goal at Best Buddies is to be put out of business. We have a long way to go. All of our staff feels strongly about… putting an end to that bullying [so that people with IDD are] seen for all their abilities.”

Of the fundraising champions, which included employees at Best Buddies who helped raise $5,000 before the soiree, and the Kessler Foundation, which donated $45,000, the DeSavino family of River Edge were crowned the gala’s Grand Champion, having raised $101,000 – the most amount of money raised by any participant.

“I am certainly proud that our family helped to achieve that goal,” said Kathy DeSavino, whose 14-year-old son Jack has autism. “I am truly amazed and touched by the eagerness of so many people to support our mission. My entire family is thrilled that Best Buddies is opening a state office. This office will make a positive impact on the lives of many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities throughout New Jersey.”

For his 10th birthday, Jack asked for donations to Autism  NJ instead of gifts. Then on his 12th birthday, he asked people to donate to Northstar Foundation, which helped to provide an autism service dog for twin brothers.

Autism is a developmental disorder that impairs one’s ability to communicate and interact. As many as 200,000 cases are diagnosed per year. While a lifelong condition, early recognition and treatment in terms of behavioral and educational therapies can help in supporting a child’s development and learning.

The need for a Best Buddies office in New Jersey is urgent. According to Adams, the autism population in New Jersey is a 1 in 41 ratio in contrast to the national average, which is 1 in 68.

With help from his mother, Jack communicated his jubilance about bringing Best Buddies operations officially to New Jersey.

“I am so happy that Best Buddies will be in New Jersey,” he said. “Best Buddies helps people with intellectual and developmental disabilities form friendships, become leaders and get jobs.”

To help raise the funds for Best Buddies this year, Jack and his family threw lavish parties including a glow dance party, in which his entire school was invited, and a cocktail party on the beach. Jack noted the human need for companionship, which is paramount to leading a happy life.

“Everybody needs a friend that they can count on, and I have hopes and dreams of having a job and living on my own when I get older. I can’t wait for Best Buddies to be at River Dell [High School]!” 

Vallye's 25-year involvement with the nonprofit is also personal. She who had grown up around people with IDD and saw firsthand their struggles to find their place in society. The gala, she said, was “overwhelmingly magical.”

“When you think of Best Buddies, when you look at our mission statement, it starts with a global volunteer movement," she explained. "[There’s] no other testament to this event other than to say it was a true volunteer movement working together to make this happen for Best Buddies New Jersey and to reach our goal. And it really brought together an entire state of volunteers to impact the entire state for the movement of disability awareness and inclusion for those with IDD. It was just inspiring. There’s no words.”

To inquire about volunteer or sponsorship opportunities with Best Buddies New Jersey, email Holly Goshin at hollygoshin@Bestbuddies.org.