Today I speak with Gustavo Soriano, Gustavo he is the Senior Director of International Programs at Best Buddies International. His role is to oversee the organization’s programs abroad, encompassing 56 countries and territories across six continents of the world. Not familiar with Best Buddies? No problem, you ‘ll get to learn about the history, mission, and incredible work of this fantastic organization. 


Gustavo Soriano is the Senior Director of International Programs at Best Buddies International. In this role, he combines his unique blend of non-profit and international management experience to oversee the organization’s programs abroad, encompassing 56 countries and territories across six continents of the world. Mr. Soriano has been in charge of the organization’s geographical expansion outside of the United States and the global development of their supported employment program.

Previously the Director of Programs at Global Brigades, Mr. Soriano has also held leadership positions in many other non-profit organizations working on public health and sustainable development in Latin America. A Medical Doctor graduate from Universidad Evangélica de El Salvador, Mr. Soriano holds an MS Degree in International Administration and Public Health from the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Miami.



Best Buddies International

Breaking Barriers with Best Buddies

Transcribed by Natalie Zhu

[ Introduction music plays ]

Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour, where you get 1 hour of learning in less than thirty minutes.

Lori: Hey everyone! Today I speak with Gustavo Soriano. Gustavo ‘s the Senior Director of International Programs at Best Buddies International. His role is to oversee the organization’s programs abroad, encompassing 56 countries and territories across six continents of the world. So maybe you ‘re not familiar with Best Buddies ““ not a problem, you ‘ll get to learn about the history, mission, and incredible work of this fantastic organization. So sit back, enjoy your beverage, and now…onto the show.

Hi Gustavo and welcome to the podcast!

Mr. Soriano: Hi Lori, and thank you for having me!

Lori: Oh, you bet ““ and I just want to apologize in advance to our listeners ““ if you hear any loud sounds going on in this world of Zoom, there happens to be road construction today, right outside my, my road ““ door [both Lori and Mr. Soriano laugh]. So we might be hearing a lot of fun things happening.

So you’re from Best Buddies and I originally got involved with Best Buddies when I was teaching in Shanghai, China, after hearing about it from our fellow board member Tanya Farrell. She had a group at her school in Beijing and so I started a group in Shanghai and now I hear that there are more than 3,000 chapters worldwide.

Mr. Soriano: That ‘s correct.

Lori: That ‘s amazing, amazing work. Can you just share with us, our listeners, about Best Buddies ““ what’s the history, what ‘s the mission?

Gustavo: Yeah, so Best Buddies International is a non-profit organization dedicated to ending the social isolation of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Best Buddies is a global organization now, over 30 years it started expanding its Friendship program ““ which is the bread and butter of Best Buddies ““ outside of the United States, so now we have [inaudible] all around the world, that have our Friendship program, and from there we started developing different pillars that [inaudible] of diversity and inclusion. Our second biggest program is the Jobs program, which is a support employment program. We train and try look for job opportunities for our participants. But we look at more of it as a circle, so after having the Friendship program that brings social inclusion for participants, we try to find, you know, opportunities out in the community for jobs. We also have our leadership development program, which is called the ambassador program. We train our participants to advocate for the mission and the rights of people with intellectual disabilities. And then our latest program and our fourth pillar is Best Buddies Living, which is an independent living. We are now partnering universities and trying to get homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities will live together and be part of an academic environment close to a university or a college. 

So that’s best buddies and as I said, we have over 30 years of experience doing our programs and so now, it’s kind of the next phase of our organization where we are trying to reach more countries and more cities around the globe.

Lori: Cool, thanks, so for our listeners in North America, Best Buddies was started by Anthony Shriver, I believe. [Mr. Soriano: Yeah.] I believe there’s a big interest in that family here, can you just give us a little information on the founding of it?

Mr. Soriano: Yeah, so it ‘s, it ‘s a very interesting story, you know the Kennedy family ““ Joseph Kennedy, was, in the 40s, he was an ambassador of the United States and in the UK he was a prominent businessman and a very philanthropic individual. And, you know he’s the father of JFK and Ted Kennedy and Eunice Kennedy ““ which people might be familiar with. But there ‘s another member of the Kennedy family, and that’s Rosemary Kennedy. Rosemary was the eldest sibling of the family ““ she was born with an intellectual disability. However, you know, in 1940s there was not much knowledge, you know, regarding intellectual disabilities. And so she would, you know, often go into, you know, mood behaviours or changes in mood, and, you know, that started, you know, concerning her parents, and one of the doctors back then, a surgeon recommended that she had a surgery called lobotomy, which is removing a part of brain, right”“ [Lori: Wow.] Yeah,  back then they had this notion that, you know, IDD could be cured, and of course that didn’t happen and Rosemary was left with a physical disability as well. So after this happened, stigma was, you know, bigger than what it is now in the U.S. back then, and she was put in a convent. She was cared by nurses ““ by nuns, sorry ““ and until Rosemary, she was, you know, started developing skills of swimming ““ so she had access to a pool and she was a very good swimmer. And Eunice Kennedy, her sister, finally came to the convent and then took Rosemary out of that convent, and of her home to rejoin the family and be part of the family. But she had noticed that she had this, you know, this big ability to swim, and that ‘s what inspired her to start Special Olympics, because she thought there might be and there should be, people with intellectual disabilities should be, you know, seen by disabilities they might have, and you know, sports and athletic competitions, so she started something called Camp Shriver, which later developed to Special Olympics. So Rosemary started this whole movement around the Kennedy family on supporting intellectual disabilities, in fact, JFK in 1963 signs what ‘s called the Maternal Child Mental Retardation, what it was called before, act, and that kinda opened the door for, you know, academic research and, you know, some healthcare institutions to study more about intellectual disabilities and, you know, back then a lot of people were institutionalized and, you know, that research helped getting more understanding on intellectual and mental disabilities. 

So after, you know, that whole movement, actually that act that JFK signed, that was the last, you know, amendment that he signed before he was, of course, murdered, so that left a big, you know, print on, you know, the movement of the rights of people with disabilities. So, Anthony Kennedy, going back to your question [laughs], Anthony Kennedy ““ our founder ““ he ‘s the son of Eunice Kenedy. And after seeing all, you know, this been happen around his family, and intellectual disabilities, he wanted to also help Because he would go to these Special Olympic games and see the stands, and of course, the family was supporting the relatives who was participating, but he started asking himself where the rest of the people were, where the rest of the fans. And the answer to that question was the people with intellectual disabilities don ‘t have usually a social life, because of this stigma, and parents also have a tendency to be overprotective and not letting their sons and daughters to be social, so he, that time was studying Georgetown University, this was back in 1989, and he thought of having a group of his friends, his classmates, and get a group of participants, of people with disabilities, get them together and see what happen. And what he saw happening was that not only, this interactions benefited the people with intellectual disabilities, but also his classmates started getting more of an awareness and seeing “Oh, this is something that I never thought that I could do, you know, I never had an interaction before with someone with different abilities”. So that changed the whole, you know concept of what became Best Buddies, and from that first chapter at George University, as you mentioned, now we have over 3,000 chapters around the world with the same mission.

Lori: Thanks, we don’t usually dive that deep into the history of an organization but I do find it very inspirational and powerful to know, well, this is what a family with power can do. They started it but they ““ they’re not the finishers, right, it’s all these organizations out there ““ the 3,000 throughout the world that really makes this so powerful.

Mr. Soriano: Correct, yeah so it ‘s, the Kennedy ‘s are an inspiration, right, we keep carrying that torch, but we do have over 367 members of our staff that get inspired because of that, and now they ‘re volunteer hundred times, some of them, to, to spread the word, right, to create these, these chapters, you know, inclusion movement. And it ‘s basically pairing volunteers without intellectual disabilities and people with intellectual disabilities, you know, at schools. You have to remember that in many countries outside of the United States we don ‘t have integrated education, so students in, you know, colleges and high schools and universities, they might never have a classmate with a disability. So Best Buddies becomes that bridge between special education schools and traditional schools. So that’s why I think our program, you know, our Friendship Program is so powerful, and it ‘s, you know, spreading in all these countries or cities ““ we have 324 cities now with our programs all around the world, and you know, it ‘s just a volunteer-based movement.

Lori: Yeah, I think that’s so important, you know, being the mom of a child or an adult with special needs, I can honestly say he doesn’t even have one true friend, one true friendship, and that was always, it’s always a very difficult thing ways to to deal with ““ seeing their, maybe they have other children like we do, seeing how natural friendships come. So when we ran our program in Shanghai that was the really neat thing, it kind of grew organically, and I started this club at our school for people who are interested in working with this other school that was segregated, it wasn’t part of our actual school, and we would bring Saturday, make Saturday ‘s once-a-month, kind of, Best Buddies days, where the best buddies would come to campus and our groups would plan activities for them and the collaboration and excitement of that all like, mini Olympics and things like that. But what that grew into later were those actual friendships, where our buddies would call each other on the phone or text each other and meet for a coffee date or things like that, so it’s, it’s really neat to watch it grow. At first it, it needs to be kind of contrived, I think [laughs]. [Mr. Soriano: Right, right.] But once it does happen it’s, it’s a really neat thing to watch.

Mr. Soriano: Yeah, and sometimes it does happen naturally. So the way that it works is that we have a program manager in each of these, you know, cities where we ‘ve started a chapter at a university or high school ““ it’s just basically recruiting volunteers. But after that, what happens is that we do some social interactions first as a group, and then you can see where those natural interactions happen. But we do our matching process, as we call, we try to make it based on gender, of course you have to ““ remember that in some cultures, especially in the Middle East, gender is very ““ there ‘s still a lot of things that you have to deal around gender. So we try to, to match the same gender. Alos the age group, you know, it ‘s better if around the same age, because of interests, right. You know, we try to pair, if one of our participants likes soccer, for example, and one of our volunteers also likes soccer, that ‘s something that will contribute to that relationship to grow more naturally. But after that it ‘s just whatever you would do with another of your friends. You can go out for a coffee, you can get together and play video games, or, you know, just share those day-to-day things that make a friendship very special. And today we have, you know, a pair of friends who have been best friends for many years, over 30 years since our organization started. We also have what we call E-buddies, which is a type of a pen pal program which is now, with Zoom, you know it ‘s getting even better, where now we have also, you know, participants that are getting friends through this virtual world that we ‘re living in.

Lori: That’s amazing. So when I worked with this group of people, some of our leaders in the high school were approached by Best Buddies to attend a conference in the summertime that you had. Is that part of your leadership academy, or is that something different?

Mr. Soriano: Yeah, so every year we have our leadership conference, which is an event that we have at [inaudible] University every year. And this is a special opportunity for our volunteers and participants around the U.S. to get together and share best practices, workshops, and do different activities. Last year ““ well the year before the pandemic when we had a chance to have it in-person, we had over 2000 participants from all over the U.S. and about 60 of them also came from all around the globe, so this is one of our main events. But we also do have some regional events, our organization is divided in the Latin American region, the Middle East, Africa, and also we have the Asia-Pacific region, so each of those regions also have their own training opportunities for our countries.

Lori: Oh, that’s really great, I didn’t know that so thank you, thank you for sharing. So selfishly I ‘m really interested in your integrated employment program. From what I understand 81% of individuals with intellectual disabilities are unemployed. [Mr. Soriano: Yes.] So what does Best Buddies do in terms of this ““ [Mr. Soriano: Yes, so”“] outstanding figure [both Lori and Mr. Soriano laugh]. 

Mr. Soriano: It is, it is outstanding, and 81% is, I think, a conservative number, if you see it here in the U.S. or those countries that have been surveyed. But in outside of the U.S. that number, in Latin America, that number is above 90%, and I ‘m sure the same happens in the developing world. So, and again we go back to that stigma, and not counting their relatives with intellectual disabilities. So what we’re doing is that we’re trying, through our support employment program, we ‘re trying to reach more and more companies that are interested in diversity and inclusion. And we ‘ve been doing this since 1994, but honestly, maybe in the last six years the program has grown above our expectations. And I think that has to do a lot with governments supporting less and less and companies taking more of a liberal. And, you know, they ‘re realizing that what ‘s the right thing to do, in the United States we don ‘t have it ““ maybe the government has this quota of 7% of the workforce have some type of disability, not just IDD ““ but in other countries you know this is a big deal. You know, in different countries and I can mention, Chile just changed their laws and now 6% of their workforce need to have ““ of course ““ over a hundred need to have some type of disability. But you have in Russia and in the UK and most countries have this quota. So that was the first, I guess, thing that motivated those companies ““ so we have to fulfill these quotas or we will get a penalty. And if they fulfill that quota then they will get maybe a tax break or some type of benefit. 

But now what we’re seeing is a switch, where companies are being more conscious about everything inclusion. And, you know, of course you have, you know, gender, and you have, you know, the LGBTQ community, but then we get to the bottom which is disabilities. And if you think about intellectual disabilities, it’s usually physical disabilities, and then you have intellectual disabilities on the bottom. So what we’re trying to do is that companies realize that people with different abilities can also have a very active role, and actually it ‘s been proven that retention rates increase, performance increase, it’s always the right thing to do for companies, to hire people with intellectual and development disabilities. And we now have over 200 companies that partner with us. Some of them are multinational, some of them are hiring in the U.S., and in other countries we have 11 countries that we have our jobs program, and, you know, so now we’re trying to get that word out and trying to get more companies to join that movement. 

It ‘s a, you know, it ‘s been not easy because you do have to break that barrier and, you know, that stigma that I mentioned before ““ just, you know, provide that kind of turnkey experience for companies. Some of them, now are starting to, you know, getting a diversity and inclusion officer that might be more in-tune with what we’re doing. But most companies, we have to do that work from zero.

Lori: Yeah, yeah. And what you said about people with intellectual disabilities being on the bottom there [sighs] it’s so depressing but thankful for organizations such as Best Buddies who are trying to help, help support our kids.

So, we ‘re about time to wrap up this podcast, but before we go, you are going to be one of our presenters for SENIA 2021 ““ our virtual conference coming up in December ““ which we ‘re really excited about, so can you just share a little bit more about what you ‘ll be discussing? Give everybody a sneak peek. [Lori and Mr. Soriano laugh]

Mr. Soriano: Thank you very much for inviting me, first of all, and we ‘re very appreciative of, you know, the partnership we have, especially in China, because we couldn ‘t do what we ‘re doing in Beijing without your support. As you know, China ““ it ‘s a very difficult country especially for a U.S.-based organization to thrive, so without your support we couldn’t get as far as we ‘re getting. And I think that, again, talking about that corporate partnerships that we ‘re developing, just how to continue moving that needle forward of involving more and more companies, and, you know, not just, you know, because it’s the right thing to do or it ‘s charity, but maybe presenting some of the impact that we ‘re having, showing numbers, right ““ how many employees we have, how many companies have benefited from partnering with Best Buddies. And not only Best Buddies, but also, you know, bringing supportive employment and giving opportunity to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. There ‘s many different areas, you know, hospitality and hospitals and law offices, there ‘s many opportunities out there, and I think just having, and bringing that word and making companies know that this is a solution for them ““ I think that ‘s the message that I want to bring for your talk. 

Lori: Well it ‘s a great message, and I think our teachers will appreciate you also sharing a little bit about the Friendship program and how they might be able to start one in their own schools or cities, if they don’t already have one cool. [Mr. Soriano: Right, yeah.] So, cool! Well, thank you Gustavo, can’t thank you enough for your time and all you do for our kids.

Mr. Soriano: No, thank you, thank you for having me today.


Lori: Thanks for stopping in to our SENIA happy hour. Don’t forget to head over to SENIAinternational.org/podcast and check out our show notes from our discussion today. We at SENIA hope you are enjoying these podcasts. There’s so much to explore and we’re at the very beginning, so feel free to drop us a note and let us know what you’d like to hear more about during your next SENIA happy hour. Until then, cheers!