Back to School with Connie Mehlman: 20 Years of Impactful Volunteering
Zimbabwe seems like the last place on Earth where this year’s Best Buddies Advisor of the Year would have started her 20-year Best Buddies journey.
“In the late 1980s, I was a Special Olympics coach,” Connie Mehlman recalled. “I had gone to a friend’s wedding in Zimbabwe, and when I was there, I got myself invited to the Zimbabwe Special Olympics. When I came home, I wrote Eunice Shriver (Anthony Kennedy-Shriver’s mom) a letter, and she got back to me.”
She then received a phone call that, while she did not realize it then, would change her life.
“Years later, a student from Miami (Ohio) University called me and said, ‘I was told if we wanted to start Best Buddies on campus, you would be the one to reach out to,’” Mehlman, who recently retired after 28 years of working for the Butler County Board of Developmental Disabilities, continued. “When I saw that Best Buddies had the Shriver name attached, I knew it would be a good program.”
Twenty years later, it was clear that both she and the student were right.
“I’ve loved every minute,” she said.
Mehlman started the Friendship chapter at Miami University in 2003 and has been its advisor since its inception. Over the last two decades, the chapter has had more than 3,300 members and has created over 885 one-to-one friendships.
Mehlman did a bit of everything as an advisor: she recruited individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), identified promising students and taught them how to be chapter leaders, planned school- and community-based events and managed fundraising efforts.
“I like being involved, but I was probably a little over-involved in the beginning,” she mentioned with a laugh.
Mehlman truly understood the scope of her work when a former student, who was paired in a one-to-one friendship with a man with Downs syndrome, told her he was having a child with the same condition.
“He was able to see all the possibilities for his son,” she said. “Because of his participation in my chapter, he was not afraid of having a child with Downs syndrome.”
The impact that Mehlman, and many other advisors like her, have on students clearly transcends their time in school. For example, Jenny Allen, a former student of Melhman’s, now works as the senior director for international programs at Best Buddies.
“Connie is so supportive and dedicated to the Best Buddies mission,” Allen said. “Seeing her dedication motivated me – she and I have stayed in touch for the last 17 years, and I feel so grateful to continue working with her.”
Currently, Mehlman serves as the chair for Best Buddies in Ohio’s advisory board. Mehlman is also in a one-to-one friendship with her buddy Mandy as a member of the Butler County Citizens program.
“The world is a better place for people with IDD because Connie is in it,” Catlin Skufca, Best Buddies in Ohio’s state director, said. “She has inspired countless leaders to make an impact.”
With a new school year quickly approaching, Mehlman believes everyone has a place and a purpose within their school’s Friendship chapter.
“Whether you are in elementary school or college, Best Buddies will be one of the most welcoming groups you join,” Mehlman promised. “By joining your school’s chapter, you can impact a life, and to make real change, that is all it takes.”
And, Mehlman has one request for those who do not have a Friendship chapter at their school: “Start one.”