One of the main ways that Best Buddies Citizens fosters friendships between neurodivergent and neurotypical adults is through fun, monthly events that range from painting to karaoke to dance classes. (Photos courtesy Yvette Furr)

Baton Rouge Best Buddies Citizens

Making new friends as an adult is notoriously difficult, but for the neurodivergent community, forging new relationships can feel impossible. Early in her career as a board-certified behavior analyst, Yvette Furr noticed the pressing need for more social resources for neurodivergent adults in Baton Rouge.

Neurodivergent adults are paired with neurotypical volunteers to establish strong connections that reach outside of the group’s regular, organized programming.

“I thought about how cool it would be to have a program specifically for adults and talked to my coworkers about how fun it would be to hang out with all of these people outside of a professional setting,” she says. “I thought, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s start a social group.’”

With the help of friend Delilah Hayden, Furr has brought her vision to life through the Baton Rouge Best Buddies Citizens chapter. The group aims to foster friendships between local neurodivergent and neurotypical adults.

As a kid, Furr volunteered with a local Best Buddies chapter that catered to younger children. Best Buddies International is a nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for one-on-one friendships, integrated employment, leadership development and inclusive living for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Each chapter is based on age, with different groups for middle, high school and college students. Furr knew she wanted to create a unique program for an often overlooked and underserved group in the community: adults with special needs.

“The adult special needs community can sometimes be isolated and excluded because our world isn’t typically accommodating to a lot of the people who come to our events,” she explains. “The most important purpose of this chapter is to show that everyone wants and deserves a friend. It’s really easy to forget that some people don’t have access to social gatherings because they may not drive or communicate in a way that we’re familiar with, or they may not have been taught the social skills to initiate that interaction.”

The minimum age to join the Baton Rouge Citizens chapter is 18, with members ranging from 24 to 54. “We have such a wide age range of people, so everyone can relate to someone at the event. I think that’s what is so special about it,” Furr says.

Each volunteer is paired with a buddy in the group based on their age and interests. Then, buddies check in weekly with texts or phone calls and hang out during the monthly events, where there’s no shortage of fun. Each month offers new activities like karaoke, bowling, kickball, dance classes and volunteering with other local organizations. In December, the chapter volunteered at the BREC and Families Helping Families of Greater Baton Rouge (FHFGBR) Sensory Santa event.

“These are the only people I would dress up as Mrs. Claus for,” Furr says with a laugh.

Thanks to generous donors and the support of family, friends and especially Delilah Hayden, the chapter has grown to host 30 to 45 people at each monthly event. Throughout the last year, Furr has heard the positive feedback of volunteers who visit once and are immediately hooked.

“Our neurotypical volunteers say that it’s a lot easier and less intimidating than they thought it would be to form that special connection,” she says. “We’ve had people come out of the woodwork saying how much fun they’ve had at our events.”

Over the years, the call to action has evolved from raising awareness of special needs individuals to a call for acceptance and inclusion. “And I think even more than that, it’s about accommodating,” Furr says. “I want something to exist that creates that acceptance and accommodation for those who aren’t able to do everything like everyone else. That’s the drive behind this for me.”

In 2024, Furr looks forward to working more closely with the BREC Adaptive Program to participate in BREC events, including the Luck of the Run on March 9 to promote Developmental Disability Awareness Month as well as the annual Sensory Bunny event and Sunshine Social Prom.

While she tries to leave her behavior analyst hat off to be a participant or organizer during the monthly social gatherings, Furr says the connections she’s made and interactions she sees have impacted her professionally.

“It’s given me a whole new perspective in my professional world of what matters and getting to the core of giving individuals the social interaction that they crave, even when it’s not obvious that they crave it,” she says. “These individuals are so full of joy, laughter, creativity and a new perspective on life that just inspires everyone. It’s been really cool to see a lot of members in the Baton Rouge community who have never even met someone with autism until they come to one of our events, and then they’re immediately invested.”

Find Baton Rouge Best Buddies Citizens on Facebook for information about monthly events, volunteering and more.