Nancy O'Dell sees the hope the special organization Best Buddies provides.
- Posted on May 1, 2007
When I was a news anchor for NBC in Miami several years ago, I was sent out to cover a story on the nonprofit volunteer organization called Best Buddies. I didn't know what the organization was and so I decided to do some research.
Sitting at my desk, I was going through a sheaf of Xeroxed pages and press releases that described Best Buddies. It turned out that the volunteers of the organization befriended adults suffering from mental disabilities.
They took them to lunch, baseball games, amusement parks and sometimes just hung out with them for an afternoon. "Having a best buddy has changed my life," said one volunteer.
I understood what that volunteer meant. I had had a best buddy too—my aunt, Ellen.
Aunt Ellen was my mother's sister. She had Down syndrome. In the days when she was born, kids like her were often institutionalized. But, not aunt Ellen. She lived with my grandparents—Popee and Grandmama—in South Carolina, about four hours from our place in Myrtle Beach.
She was a couple of decades older than I was, but I knew—as kids understand these things without being told—that she was the perfect friend for me.
Oh, the hours we spent in my grandparents' house playing together!
They had a long hall and we devised this game with a ball where we rolled it down the long rug—"Be careful," Grandmama would warn us—and the other had to catch. While the adults chatted in the living room, I'd rush off to play with my pal aunt Ellen.
We stretched our feet out and rolled that ball back and forth until Popee said we were going to wear out the rug. But he and Grandmama, loved to see us play together.
Ellen had a small electric organ in her bedroom and she would play and sing hymns and patriotic songs. "America, the Beautiful" and "Stars and Stripes Forever" were particular favorites. I could play too, and we sat on that bench together.
She liked to take the melody and so did I, and sometimes we pushed against each other on that bench until one of us fell off laughing. Then we'd get back on and go back to our music and our singing, "Three cheers for the red, white and blue," changing the stops to sound like a piccolo or trumpet, the whole band filling Ellen's bedroom.
It must have been sheer cacophony, but not to our ears.
I wondered why people stared at my aunt Ellen in restaurants. She was short with dark hair, dark eyes and a wide smile. I couldn't understand why people thought she was so unusual. She could do most anything I could. Play the organ, shoot baskets, play catch, write her name under the pictures we drew.
We loved bowling and playing putt-putt golf. And we loved watching TV together, especially the Wheel of Fortune. So what was so different about Aunt Ellen?
Then one day I remember looking over Popee's shoulder while he was reading us a story from the Bible—Popee was a deacon in the church and he and Grandmama were always reading the Bible. I sat next to him, and Aunt Ellen sat on the other side.
Popee let me read a passage of Scripture, sounding out all of the difficult words like "Nazareth" and "Bethlehem." Then I realized that he didn't ask Aunt Ellen to read. He didn't have to explain it to me. I somehow knew. Aunt Ellen can't read.
She began to pepper me with questions. "Nancy," she asked, "why can't I be on a softball team like you?" Or she looked at my schoolbooks and turned to me with her wide dark eyes. "Why can't I go to school too?"
I didn't have any answers for her. I knew there were the games I could play with Aunt Ellen—the ball game in the hall, shooting baskets in the driveway, playing the organ—but, there were other things that she culdn't do.
Even when we did stuff together, like singing hymns in church, she was just following me. And she couldn't read any of the words on the page.
I asked Popee for the answers to the questions that I couldn't answer. "Why can't Aunt Ellen be on a team, Popee? She loves all sports."
"Someday, honey, maybe there will be a team she can play on," he said.
"Why do people stare at her?" I asked.
"Well, because they have never met someone like your aunt Ellen," he told me.
"But why did God make her the way he did?"
Popee thought for a long time on this and then he told me, "Because he knew what a good friend she could be for you."
That's the message that stuck most in my head. Aunt Ellen had a lot of love to give to the world, but most of the world didn't know what she had to offer.
She made them feel uncomfortable or they patted her on the head like a child and then went ahead and organized ball games without ever asking her to be on the team. They didn't stop to consider what her feelings were.
Because my aunt was raised in a home with a lot of love and a church that cared about her, she had a happy life. But what about others? And what about the others who didn't know how loving an aunt like mine could be?
I went off to Clemson and studied marketing and entered some beauty pageants for the scholarships. In 1987 I was crowned Miss South Carolina. My dear aunt Ellen couldn't be there, but for the talent part of the contest I did something that she would have especially enjoyed: I played the piano.
And you can guess the song—"Stars and Stripes Forever" (okay, the Vladimir Horowitz arrangement I used was a little more sophisticated than the one we played in Aunt Ellen's bedroom).
After college I started out in the marketing department at a tiny TV station—so small that they asked me to help out on the air sometimes. From there I went to Charleston, where I was a reporter, and then Miami, where I first heard about Best Buddies.
Naturally I did the story about the organization, but more than that, I became a real advocate of the program.
A lot has changed since Aunt Ellen was a girl. Children with Down syndrome get mainstreamed into public schools and they get to compete in events like the Special Olympics. Best Buddies is a way they can continue to have friendships and become more integrated into everyday life.
I worked on the TV show Access Hollywood for more than 10 years, and one of our best employees was a young man, Jonathan, from Best Buddies who filed our videotapes. He took such pride in his work. He showed the kind of devotion that Aunt Ellen always showed me.
Not long ago I was doing an on-camera interview with another Best Buddies employee in another Hollywood office. His job was in the mailroom, and in the middle of the interview, the phone rang.
"Excuse me," he said, "but we're going to have to stop this interview now because I have to answer that phone." I wondered if I'd just interviewed the hardest working, most loyal employee in all of Hollywood!
Popee and Grandmama, with their love of the Bible, would have understood all of this. They knew how God made all of us different, each with our own special gifts. All we need is the opportunity to use them.
I hope I've helped give a few people that opportunity. It's only a way of returning the friendship and love my aunt Ellen gave me.