Q&A: Best Buddies NH Founder Sarra Dennehy Lynch
Nonprofit creates opportunities for inclusive living for people with disabilities
In 2002, Sarra Dennehy Lynch’s political career came to a standstill when her son, Liam, was born with Down syndrome. Her life changed once again after she attended a Best Buddies bike ride challenge with a friend. Headquartered in Miami, Fla., Best Buddies is a nationwide nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for friendships, employment, leadership development, and inclusive living for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Sarra saw an opportunity to open a Best Buddies chapter in New Hampshire in 2014.
Q. How difficult was it to start a chapter here?
A. It was really hard. You feel like nobody understands the importance, nobody understands the relevance, and it was very frustrating. I wasn’t alone; I had people fighting it with me.
In the end, I like to think that truth prevails, and it did in this case. The road blocks were just trying to convince people of the importance. We’re all on this Earth together, and people with disabilities have just as much rights as anybody else. They are the people that are the most segregated to this day.
We are their voice for the most part, and so we have to care. We have to fight for them, and so I am out there fighting for the basic right of recognition and friendship, because everybody needs a friend.
Q. Can you explain the school programs you put in place?
A. We go into schools, and it’s a studentrun program. We’ve got two advisors from the school, one that’s in the special ed department and an advisor that’s in a general department. The advisors work together to match typical kids with their counterparts according to interests. We do a match party, and the kids communicate weekly and see each other outside of school. Many times it turns into this beautiful friendship that lasts for years.
I remember one where where a friendship changed her life, where she’s now a speech and language pathologist, and she’s still best friends with her buddy. We had one guy who didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, and he came to Best Buddies to our international leadership conference and is now a special ed teacher.
Q. What’s new for this year?
A. We really want to bring our jobs program to New Hampshire. We have a jobs program globally, and it is one of the most important things we do. People with IDD deserve to have a job that they dream about, something that they want to do.
We just got somebody with autism who loves numbers, and his job is a data statistician with the NFL. We’ve placed people at the Grand Ole Opry, Silicon Valley banks, you name it.
We really want to bring that to NH, because I feel like it’s a little niche that not every job placement agency has, and we stay with our participants for their lifetime at their jobs. Even when we’re not getting paid anymore, we still stay to make sure that they’re successful.
It’s another element in having a happy, fulfilled life. Not only do you have friends, but now you have a job that you’re proud of. We’ve had so many companies across the company saying, “Your individual that we hired is our best employee and has changed the culture of our corporation. Can we hire someone else?”
Q. How can we make that happen here in NH?
A. It’s a slow process. The first step is finding the money. I have to find a donor that’s willing to support us. We’ll be supported by Vocational Rehab in NH eventually, but I want to find someone that values the importance of this work. They’re out there.
It really shouldn’t be so tough. If everyone in the world had somebody in their family that had experienced a disability, our world would be different. It wouldn’t be abnormal to have somebody with a disability at your office. It’s unfair that people don’t pay attention to this.
Q. How can people in the community get involved?
A. We are really focused on expansion throughout the state. And that’s why we host our Best Buddies Friendship Walks, because we want to bring Best Buddies to every school in New Hampshire. We don’t have a lot of schools on the Seacoast, and we’re focusing on the North Country. We want people to be aware of what we’re doing, so we need volunteers, supporters, board members, you name it. We need sponsors, we need it all.
A Best Buddies Friendship Walk is taking place in Concord on May 13, and another in Exeter on June 17. We welcome teams to get together and help raise money. Find out more at bestbuddies.org/newhampshire.