She was on track to pursue a career in vocal music, but something was missing as she practiced hitting the right notes alone.
“It came to a point where I realized my priorities are all about me,” Varner said. “I wanted to serve others.”
The 20-year-old junior elementary and special education major changed her music major to a minor during her freshman year and began to volunteer with developmentally disabled children and adults. The decision would later inspire her to start a club to give developmentally disabled adults a taste of the college experience.
The club, called Lee Buddies, partners Lee students and students from Trousdale School students together as “buddies.” The peer mentoring group allows the pairs to participate in activities at each other’s schools and build friendships along the way.
The Lee Buddies club is modeled after an organization called Best Buddies International that pairs disabled and nondisabled individuals together for mentoring and friendship.
It is not yet affiliated with the international organization because the group wants to “start out strong” as a campus club before applying for an official charter membership, said Varner.
In July of 2011, she worked at a camp for developmentally disabled adults and “fell in love” with the work.
“I loved getting to interact with the campers and staff,” Varner said. “That made me want to work with these people full time.”
She had a conversation with a student from Carson Newman University about the Best Buddies chapter at her college. Varner had never heard of the organization, but the “seed was planted” in her mind to start a chapter at Lee.
“I got really excited and started telling my friends all my ideas,” Varner said.
After gathering the support of classmates and professors over the course of a semester, Varner joined with her fellow club officers to make plans for the fall. In May, the officers held an informational meeting at Trousdale School to share the club’s mission with parents and guardians. By the time classes started this fall, 18 Trousdale students had signed up for the club.
“We were really excited that they approached us,” said Stephanie Royer, a Trousdale School teacher who has been a point of contact for the club.
Lee Buddies’ leaders opened its membership to Trousdale School students because they thought the schools would make a good partnership. However, it is open to independent students as well. Varner said she has had families contact her individually about joining the club because they love the idea of the club. Some have wondered if they can still participate if they are not Trousdale students.
“My answer to that is always yes,” Varner said.
Lee Buddies currently has one member who is not a Trousdale student, a young woman who is not yet old enough to attend the school. Trousdale requires that all its students be 22 or older to serve students who are only able to be part of the public school system until the age of 21.
Varner said the club is unique when compared to other activities for developmentally disabled people because all members play an active role in planning what they do as a group. Some are able to do more than others, but all are able to say whether or not something sounds fun to them.
“We ask the Lee students involved to be active members,” Varner said. “If we’re promoting quality, we ask Trousdale students to be as actively involved.”
All members — regardless of school affiliation — pay dues, vote in meetings and help plan activities, she said. One Trousdale student serves as an officer in the club with the title of Buddy Director, serving as a leader among her fellow Trousdale School students.
Buddies meet for activities on the second Thursday on each month from 4 to 6 p.m., and the club had its first official event last month. On Sept. 13, the group met for games and snacks before embarking on a photo scavenger hunt where groups had to do tasks like “blow bubbles in the bell tower.”
After the scavenger hunt came what was for many members the highlight of the event — getting paired togethers as buddies. Varner said the group held a ceremony where each pair was announced and that students from both schools broke into big smiles paired with happy tears. She said she was crying at least.
“This is going to sound cliché, but I felt like I could see lives changing,” Varner said. “I just saw that exchange of joy.”
Royer said she couldn’t help but notice how excited her students in Lee Buddies were when they went to school the next day. She said that they would not stop talking about who their buddies were and what they had done for the scavenger hunt.
“It meant so much to them,” Royer said. “They enjoyed getting to be on a college campus and take pictures and such. I hope that people in the community are proud to see Lee University students reaching out to this population.”
Lee University currently has 26 student members, and 18 students from Trousdale School are currently involved. So far, 14 Lee students are paired with the 18 Trousdale students. All Lee Buddies participants are paired with buddies of the same sex. However, Varner said some of the male Lee students are paired with more than one Trousdale student because of gender ratio differences.
Still, she said she expects membership numbers from both schools to rise as word gets out about the “joy” the buddies have felt as they have gotten to know each other. The official club motto is “You make a difference.” Varner said she wants everyone to realize that they and everyone around them matter — even those with disabilities.
“They have these problems, but, above all, they’re children of God,” Varner said. “We all are. We all matter.”