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'21 Strong: Everyone needs a best buddy, especially during a pandemic

One program is helping new friends build strong bonds during a lonely time.

UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS, Ohio — "What’s up George? What’s going on, buddy?"

"Best Buddies" Matthew Loughran and George Agaiby meet up often on Zoom. Last week, they let Sara Shookman join the chat.

The two men already have a strong connection, even though they only met for the first time last fall.  

"Where were you when you found each other?" we asked.

"March of 2020, I began to stay home," George shared. "I stayed home six months, every day, Monday to Friday. I am bored at home."

"Like George, I was kind of struggling," Matthew added. "I was also feeling isolated, bored, longing for feeling that connection that we're so used to having with people in the pre-pandemic times."

The nonprofit organization "Best Buddies" made the friendship match between George and Matthew.

"A couple of months ago, someone emailed me from John Carroll," George explained. "They sent me the name of a person named Matthew."

Best Buddies is relatively new to Ohio. Its chapter at John Carroll University started in September. George and Matthew were the first to get matched. 

"During the coronavirus pandemic, all of us experienced isolation, and some of us (including myself) really for the first time," Catlin Skufca, state director for Best Buddies International, said. "We realized how awful it was. Unfortunately, many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have experienced this their whole lives."

These one-to-one friendships are key to strengthening inclusive communities.

"Me and him, we will work together to figure out how he can make me happy," George shared.

Matthew and George have game nights and holiday parties. They've met each other's friends and families. 

"George has definitely established himself as a John Carroll favorite," Matthew said.

Credit: Matthew Loughran
Matthew's friends have now become George's friends too, widening his social circle in a very isolating time.

Through Matthew, George's circle of friends has grown, but he is anxious for the next step. 

"I want to meet them in person."

But with the coronavirus looming, even Matthew and George haven't met in person yet. Matthew graduates from John Carroll in May. 

Still, these true friends lean on each other to stay '21 Strong, counting down the days until it is safe to meet face-to-face. 

Credit: Matthew Loughran
Matthew will graduate from John Carroll in a few months. He hopes to meet George in-person before he graduates.

"I just feel like George and I have made such a strong connection, and I formed such a tight bond that I consider him one of my closest friends," Matthew said. "It may not be meeting someone at a coffee shop, but even with Zoom, you are still able to have really meaningful conversations."

In six years here in Ohio, Best Buddies has connected with 30 schools, and is adding new chapters all the time. Westlake High School’s advisors just got started in November.

“[The students] understand what it feels like now to be alone and to be isolated and to be separated from their friends,” co-advisor Rebecca Sachik, the school's psychologist, said. "I think it gives it a new weight, a new value, new importance to them.'

Credit: George Agaiby
Matthew and George were the very first "Best Buddies" match in John Carroll's program. Matthew has shown George some of John Carroll's campus, via Facetime or Zoom. He hopes to give an in-person tour sometime soon.

They have 10 students who've stepped into leadership roles, and at least a dozen others interested in a buddy match. Co-advisor Tabatha Devine, the district’s transition coordinator, hopes to begin that process soon.

"That’s what’s exciting about Best Buddies is not only the potential for somebody to form that bond with just even one person, but to open themselves up to many more wonderful things that they can participate in."

Parents, teachers, even students can get the process going at their own school. It all starts with an email to ohio@bestbuddies.org.

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