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A foundation for friendship

Meet the University of Edinburgh student volunteers who are forming lasting friendships while contributing to the community.

Cathy Kitchen

For six years student-run charity Best Buddies Edinburgh has been providing an environment for adults with learning disabilities to enhance their confidence and social skills. They have around 50 members who attend the weekly club.

“A lot of our members have been coming for many years and it’s been incredible to see some of them grow,” says Cathy Kitchen (pictured above) a third-year medical student who is co-leader of the Best Buddies Edinburgh club. “When you start volunteering you don’t know anyone and it’s a bit intimidating, but over time you gain this connection with people you didn’t know you could have a friendship with.”

Introducing the Best Buddies Edinburgh student volunteers

Forming bonds

Best Buddies member John Booker has attended the club for four years and describes the experience as “helping to give me independence”. He also has one-to-one outings with Aaron Janklow, a PhD student who came to Edinburgh from New Jersey to study theology and ethics. John and Aaron go bowling and out for lunch regularly to maintain their supportive friendship.

Another regular is Moira Todd, who gets two buses from her home to attend Best Buddies. She is passionate about crafts and likes to share this activity with the friends she has met at the club. The student volunteers offer a range of arts and crafts workshops through Best Buddies, as well as games nights and group outings.

Time well spent

There are around 40 students who give up their free time to volunteer for the group. Co-leader Alex St Clair, a fourth-year Primary Education student, says it provides a forum for students to develop their skills and to connect with the community. “This is really great for people management and interacting with the community,” says Alex. “It is also really good in terms of the student body – as it’s nice to meet people from other courses who are also volunteering.” She continues: “It’s great for us to have a really tight group so we form meaningful friendships with our members which we hope will last way beyond university.”

Jeremy Rankin, who enjoys playing the board games at the meetings, couldn’t agree more. “Alex is the best buddy of all time. I am always with her because she looks after me. I’ve met my best friends here,” he says.

Community heroes

In December 2015 the volunteer group was shortlisted for a national award as one of the three nominations for the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Real Young Heroes Award. The awards celebrate the work of people in communities who make a difference to the lives of those around them. The nomination recognised the group’s long-lasting commitment and fresh approach to volunteering. The group was nominated for the award by its partner organisation, ENABLE Scotland – a charity that campaigns for a better life for children and adults with learning disabilities.

Something for everyone

The group have worked with ENABLE Scotland on developing a programme of events which are suited to the needs of the members who are a range of ages.

“We make the activities as fun and accessible as possible,” says Alex. “We have some very young and very elderly members and all of them benefit in different ways.” According to the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability, in 2015 there were more than 27,000 adults with learning disabilities known to Scottish local authorities, which equates to more than six people for every 1,000 adults in the general population.

Improving services

ENABLE Scotland is one of the leading campaign groups looking to improve services that are designed to ensure that people who have learning disabilities can live the life they want and participate in their community. The charity offers a small meeting hall as premises – and a home – for the Best Buddies meetings and events.

Cathy Thomson, treasurer of ENABLE Edinburgh reflects: “The students interact very well with the members. The members just trust them. There is a big gap in what is required in services for people with learning disabilities. We supply just a little, but this scheme really helps with the isolation that many people with learning disabilities can experience. It gives members a chance to speak to other people, see their friends and relax.”

Student opportunities

The student group in Edinburgh is part of a global volunteer movement, which comes under the umbrella name Best Buddies. It is one of 13 volunteer groups available to Edinburgh students through the Edinburgh University Students’ Association. As well as financial support, the Students’ Association provides students with advice on fundraising and training for how to run a successful group. Riaz Karim, a fourth-year Economics student who is the fundraiser for Best Buddies Edinburgh has used advice from the Students’Association and the Edinburgh Students’ Charity Appeal to generate funds for the initiative. His experience has been a very positive one.

“I honestly do this out of love,” he says. “When you’re fundraising for charity everyone is just so much more welcoming and open, particularly when I explain what Best Buddies is all about. It’s a great place to chill out and it is good for the carers to take time out and everyone can just have some fun.”


Photo credit: Tricia Malley & Ross Gillespie

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