David Fasolino was a first year student in 2018 when he realized something was missing. Fasolino, a loyal ally of the special needs community, decided to take matters into his own hands. Thus, the creation of the Best Buddies chapter of Monmouth University.
Best Buddies is a non-profit organization dedicated to ending the isolation of the over 200 million people with developmental disabilities. The group does so by aiming to create one-on-one friendships between people with and without special needs.
Fasolino explained that he was involved in Best Buddies at his Long Island high school. His involvement in the club at that time went beyond just having it as a point on his resume. The club was extremely impactful, and so was the bond formed between Fasolino and his Buddy. He explained that his Buddy, and his own experience with having a learning disability greatly motivated him to create a chapter of Best Buddies at the University.
“I have a learning disability myself,” he shared. “While it’s not the kind of disability that Best Buddies services, just having that disability myself is able to help me with understanding that sometimes it’s important to just be included and be a friend for someone that needs it.”
Fasolino added that in addition to his personal connection to the club, he was inspired by the scarcity of Best Buddies chapters in New Jersey. He said, “When I applied to Monmouth I had seen that there wasn’t a chapter here, and that in the state of New Jersey alone, there were probably five or six chapters…only two or three of them being at universities.” With all of this in mind, Fasolino began the process of chartering Best Buddies at Monmouth.
However, starting up the club did not come without its own set of hardships. Fasolino said, “Challenges is an understatement!” According to him, the process was long and tedious, and comprised many meetings with Student Activities and the University’s Student Government Association. He said that many of these meetings included giving presentations that would ultimately decide whether or not Best Buddies would establish itself at the University.
Once approved, the club was able to have several meetings, but Fasolino said, “It didn’t really do much…We were supposed to have a partnership and it never got solidified. Then COVID didn’t really help it. Between fall of 2019 and the spring and early summer of this year, it was kind of a stand still. Nothing really happened until [this] summer.”
Fasolino shared that this summer, Best Buddies received news from their advisor, Professor Danielle Firth, that word was spreading about the club between faculty and students alike. Fasolino credited one of Professor Firth’s graduate students, Lily Occhipinti, who is coincidentally on the board for the New Jersey state chapter of Best Buddies. He said that she was incredibly helpful in organizing a Best Buddies day at Monmouth’s football game versus Princeton on Oct. 9.
He said, “At the tailgate, we celebrated Monmouth’s chapter and it was just a really fun event with the state director Matthew Fernandes in attendance as well.”
The club’s growth and increased name recognition in recent months could not be in better timing. The Best Buddies chapter at the University has finally found a local partner, The Arc of Monmouth, referred to as “The Arc” by Fasolino. He explained that The Arc is a post-secondary organization for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Though members of the club are still going through the on-boarding process with The Arc, Fasolino anticipates that their partnership will include activities where Buddies can interact. He hopes that the pairs will be able to form relationships by going to movies or even sports games together.
While Fasolino’s time at Monmouth may be running out as he awaits graduation in May of 2022, he has high hopes for the future of the club. He shared, “My hope is that we’ll have a lot of Buddy pairs and a lot of people understanding that people with disabilities should be included and welcomed in every phase of life. That’s what Best Buddies is all about. It’s about not just making a friend, but being a friend for those students too.”
He explained that too often, people with special needs and disabilities find themselves isolated: whether that be sitting alone at the lunch table, or lacking friendships, which are essential in feeling a sense of belonging and purpose. He said, “Hopefully with this club, people can recognize the points of inclusion with students with disabilities.”
Christina Androulakis, the club’s Vice President added, “Like David said, people with disabilities are still people, and they deserve friendships and acceptance.”
Thanks to Best Buddies, a pathway towards greater inclusion and acceptance of those with special needs is being created. For more information on Best Buddies, check out their Instagram @bbmonmouthu. Club meeting details can be found on the Experience Monmouth app!