Making a Difference: Best Buddies

UPDATED: June 1, 2011
PUBLISHED: June 1, 2011

If you could list President John F. Kennedy, U.S. Sens. Robert F. Kennedy and Edward Kennedy as your uncles; Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver as your father; Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver as your mother; Maria Shriver as your sister and Arnold Schwarzenegger as your brother-in-law, it’s safe to say you could pull some strings. But what exactly would you do with that opportunity if given the chance?

Anthony Kennedy Shriver knows names can open doors. But beyond opportunity, his famous family provided him with a personal philosophy that inspired him to start a nonprofit that touches some 700,000 lives annually and has grown from a college project into an organization now in 50 countries, as well as all 50 states.

Best Buddies International, started by Shriver in 1989, is dedicated to creating opportunities for one-to-one friendship, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. By pairing them with people without disabilities, the organization fosters meaningful relationships that in turn help people with disabilities to develop social skills and confidence to navigate more easily through life. The organization has become a mission for Shriver, who has overseen its growth from a single chapter to almost 1,500 chapters at middle school, high school and college campuses.

Shriver does more than lend his name to the effort. As the organization has grown, so have the day-to-day responsibilities, administrative work and travel around the globe to special events. “Sometimes it feels like work,” he admits.

But when asked to recall a defining moment, he quickly says, “Thank God I don’t only have one. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to keep going. I have thousands of them.”

He recalls giving a presentation in Miami recently that brought mothers to tears as he spoke of their children’s success stories. He also recalls one Buddy from Boston who went from a sedentary life of watching TV all day to being fully insured and salaried in a new job and engaged in a newfound social life.

“I’ve got to have a fire in my belly and kerosene thrown in there,” Shriver says. “Otherwise, the days become really long and overwhelming. Sometimes you go, ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’ And you get a shining moment, and then it’s all worth it.”

Shriver, 45, can hardly believe just how much Best Buddies has grown. “It’s been an incredible ride,” says the Georgetown alum. “I’ve been all around the world because of it. My family is all involved in it, so it’s become a family affair, which is how I grew up—being involved in volunteer service—and I found that to be a very rewarding life. It’s a life that leads you to stay together as a family, which is critical to your kids and your spouse, and I’m grateful for that.”

He recognizes the importance of having a strong team but cites his family as the strongest contributor to his success. “My parents are probably the greatest influence in my life. My mother was really my partner in this venture from the very beginning. I spoke to her every day, and she came to all of our events. She helped me brainstorm; she helped me with speeches—really with everything. Her determination and hard work and focus and the way that she and my dad interacted with other people and treated other people are all examples I’ve had my whole life and examples I try to emulate.”

Although Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver were busy with their own work, their children felt “like we were the most important thing in their lives,” Anthony Shriver says.

“I think everyone who is successful has had someone along the line pick them up and help them, guiding them and taking an interest in them. I don’t care who you are; I think everyone needs that helping hand. Anyone who says they did it on their own, I think they’re making it up. I don’t know anyone who’s done it on their own entirely.”

Shriver says his idea of success, “first and foremost, means having a great wife and a great family. The relationship with my wife [Alina] is equal and mutually supportive, where she’s able to try and achieve her goals but at the same time still supports me with my goals.”

As a father of five, Shriver strives to spend as much time as possible with his children, despite his hectic schedule. “It’s also so important to make sure your kids feel loved and front and center at all times. I want to make sure that they know no matter what I’m doing professionally, I would drop it all to help them in whatever it was that was going on in their lives. I think if you make a billion dollars and build the biggest business in the world and your kids are a mess, to me I think you’re a failure. The mark I hope to leave is this: good, solid, well-adjusted, even-keeled, God-loving, God-fearing kids with good families of their own.”

Shriver admits his famous name hasn’t hurt, and he wouldn’t trade it for anything. “It helps open the door, but when you get in, if you don’t have a product that’s exciting, you get a very courteous meeting. But that’s all you’re going to get.”

Clearly, with major corporate sponsors including Audi and Pepsi, funding from organizations such as The Annenberg Foundation, and federal, state and local government partnerships, Best Buddies has proven to be an exciting product.

Shriver believes his work with the organization gives his life purpose. “Our time is fleeting and fast,” he says. “It’s fast as hell, especially when you get older. I’ve had a lot of people in my family pass away in the last couple of years. You remember laughing with them or playing sports with them or having conversations, and boom—they’re sitting in a box. It’s a pretty big wake-up call. We’re all going to be sitting in the box at some point, so I think you have to make sure you’re doing what you really love and you’re really passionate about and it’s what you want to spend your time doing—because there’s not much time.”