Buddies Breaking Barriers: Kellie Howard

Her face was lit with jubilation as she shared her passions as a Best Buddy. Kellie Howard, 28, not only takes classes at the University of South Florida, but is a member and leader of the non-profit organization, Best Buddies International. This organization impacts lives every day and Howard is one of them.

Best Buddies International was founded in 1989 by Anthony K. Shriver. His mission statement was to foster one-to-one friendships between people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities. It is made up of eight major programs that reach more than 900,000 individuals with and without disabilities.

Strictly speaking, Howard is not an enrolled student at the University of South Florida. She is in the Successful Transition After Graduation for Exceptional Students program. (STAGES) In this program, she is not necessarily enrolled as a student or employed as staff, but rather takes classes and rotates various positions on campus to further her job skills.  

Howard was also born with a developmental disability. This had impacted her socially growing up, but has not defined her as an adult.  She recounted her experiences of being bullied up until 10th grade and shared her sentiments.

“I think kids bully people with disabilities because they haven’t been taught to love those who are different, ” Howard said. “And maybe they have been taught to bully. I may never know.”

Even though Howard had to go through this, it shows how she embodies Best Buddies International’s values of fostering empowering friendships mentioned prior. She has blossomed within the chapter at USF and has built a support system of friends both locally and nationally.

“Best Buddies has improved my confidence so much, I’m so outgoing and I even do public speaking now,” Howard said.

She explained that she had not been too involved getting started with the USF Best Buddies chapter back in 2009. She really started getting more involved in 2011.

“I’m on the Board of Directors, I’m on the Young Leaders Council and I’m also a global ambassador. Meaning I get to travel, speak at different venues and talk to people about Best Buddies wherever I go,” Howard said.

She has traveled to various locations such as Indiana, Boston, and California. She has been able to meet not only other best buddies, but important figures such as Anthony K. Shriver himself (she knows him personally) and celebrities like Tom Brady and Patrick Schwarzenegger. She has won awards such as the Gala and has been nominated and invited to speak on behalf of Best Buddies at many events including the current Best Buddies Challenge in California, all expenses paid.

Her favorite experience though is at the Leadership Conference where she gets to help facilitate workshops and meet people from all over the United States and internationally.

“Leadership conference is kind of like bid day for sororities in where all the best buddies from all over the nation, 50 states, 50 countries worldwide because we are international. They come from Kenya, people from Mexico, everywhere. And it is just a good time to celebrate friendships and be yourself without anyone judging you to celebrate Best Buddies,” Howard said.

Dana Brown, an older USF Best Buddy, like Howard shared how she also enjoyed being a global ambassador and how beneficial it is. She talked about the Leadership Conference she attended with Howard.

“We learn new stuff, did workshops and met new people,” Brown said.

The networking and training experiences like this has also helped her grow out of her shyness and be more open.

Howard also explained how she loves the on-campus events and her relationship with her own personal buddy. She loves shopping, going to concerts and just simply hanging out and being herself  with her Best Buddy Emma Donahue.

Brown shared more on this and how the process of receiving a best buddy is her favorite event. This event is called the Match Party where individuals with disabilities get to find out who their buddy without a disability is. This is event is very special because the friendships forged here will last a lifetime

Another Best Buddy, Jamie Dineen, shared how one of her favorite events that Howard also was very exuberant about was, Spread the Word to End the Word. This is an annual event that both Best Buddies International and the Special Olympics participate in.

“In March, we have a table where we set up and have pledges to stop using the R-word*

and have people sign it,” Dineen said. “We always get over 1,000 signatures and then hang it up in the MSC.”

As Dineen was explaining this, Howard was helping her find the right words. Howard truly believes in helping others as Best Buddies International has helped her. This organization is an integral part of her life and has helped her develop into who she is today.

She is more than just a disability and her many experiences convey that anything is possible. Her fellow Best Buddies can attest to this. Howard hopes to celebrate and spread acceptance, something she learned when she was little.

“People make fun of others for anything. Having a disability is something that I can’t change,” Howard said. “I would never ever change that for Best Buddies.”

 

*R-Word- Retard. Derogatory and antiquated.