Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared regularly in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds BS and MS degrees and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside in Connecticut.
Growing up, most of us did some bicycling with our best buddies. Some still do today for a most important and essential cause.
On Oct. 19, Austin Ruse, the president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), is one of the many people taking to the pavement to ride in the Audi Best Buddies Challenge.
The Best Buddies Challenge is an annual event that raises funds for Best Buddies International, an organization dedicated to helping those with Down syndrome.
The challenge is no cake walk. Ruse and his team will be riding over a 62-mile (100 kilometers) route around Washington, D.C., and into Virginia that includes more than 4,000 feet of mountain climbs. There are also run and walk events for non-bicyclists the same day.
All these efforts aim to help this organization, which is devoted to aiding children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“The interesting thing about this charity is that it was inspired by Sargent and Eunice Shriver,” Ruse explains. “And it’s run by their son Anthony Shriver. His parents were faithful Catholics who started the Special Olympics.”
Best Buddies originally launched in 1989 with one chapter. Today, it has grown to nearly 1,700 chapters worldwide, including all 50 U.S. states and 50 countries.
Its mission is to give support primarily through one-on-one friendships that pair volunteers with children with Down syndrome in eight different programs, beginning with middle school and advancing through high school, college and post-college areas.
Each buddy pair is meant to bring priceless opportunities for socialization to those with the developmental and intellectual disabilities.
Before talking about his team and their goals for this year, Ruse highlighted the importance of Best Buddies.
“It’s not explicitly pro-life, but implicitly pro-life, because it teaches people how to be friends with those with intellectual disabilities,” he says. “Therefore, it can also help women who face this challenge.”
He points out that up to 90% of unborn babies diagnosed in utero with Down syndrome are aborted. He notes that two of the likely reasons — the uncertainty a woman may feel about whether she and her family can handle the situation and whether the child will live an isolated and lonely life.
What Best Buddies does,” he emphasizes, “is show [people] these are loving people who enhance our lives, the mothers can handle it, and the children will indeed have lifelong friends.
“Best Buddies is a living example to a mother that her child can always have friends. So it helps women make the right choice.”
Taking the Best Buddies Challenge to raise moneys for such a worthy organization with such loving goals is not new to Ruse.
Two years ago, riding as an individual and not as a team, he collected enough donations and pledges to wind up as the second-highest individual fundraiser for the event.
Last year, instead of going it alone, he created a team of five riders and again crossed the finish line near the top of the team fundraisers.
“We came in second overall,” he says. “We raised about $75,000 last year. It was really astounding.” They beat all the top corporate teams except for one. For their efforts, they were recognized with an award as the highest independent team fundraiser.
“I keep getting beat by corporate guys,” he chuckles.
And what about this year’s team?
“We’re a group of faithful Catholics from various walks of life, with some who do pro-life work and others who support it,” Ruse says. “We’re all very dedicated to the charity.”
In fact, it appears to be a stellar group. Among them are Shannen Coffin, who was a lawyer on Dick Cheney’s vice-presidential staff; a gentleman from the International Monetary Fund; former Microsoft executive Mark Ryland, now with Amazon; and pro-life attorney Bruce Barket and his wife, Mary Kay, from Long Island and their entire family of six. The Barkets have a daughter with Down syndrome.
“We’ve got a great team,” Ruse affirms. “But we’re probably going to end up in second place, and I may or may not be the biggest individual fundraiser. We will know on the morning of Oct. 19.”
Ruse spotlights his team’s name and how it fits into the message of the challenge. “The team is named 'C-Fam/Lejeune' because we’re dedicated to promoting the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation and raising awareness of the foundation,” he points out.
“Lejeune was the geneticist who found the genetic markers that cause Down syndrome. He became horrified later in life when he realized that marker became the death sentence for these children with Down syndrome, and he spent his whole life in the pro-life cause. [Blessed] John Paul II created the Pontifical Academy of Life for him. Lejeune was a global pro-life leader, and he was also very close friends with the Shrivers.”
To help these children through Best Buddies, Ruse and his team are working and hoping to be the top fundraisers this year. At this point, the Barkets are the No. 1 fundraisers, and Ruse is No. 2 overall.
Ruse is asking as many people as possible to support him for the Best Buddies Challenge, which helps the overall team, by going to his personal fundraising website and donating to help as many of these children as possible.
Ruse said the cause is urgent.
“The devil wants children with Down syndrome dead. The flip side is Jesus loves them and wants them because they are his messengers of love. They bring people out of themselves. They’re mostly jolly people who don’t sin.”
And he shares a passage from the novel The Clowns of God by Morris West that was brought to his attention recently. It beautifully captures the goal of Best Buddies.
In it, Jesus goes to a school for children with Down syndrome. He holds a little girl, saying:
"I know what you are thinking. You need a sign. What better one could I give but to make this little one whole and new? I could do it, but I will not. … I gave this mite a gift I denied to all of you — eternal innocence. To you, she looks imperfect — but to me she is flawless. … She will never offend me, as all of you have done. She will never pervert or destroy the work of my Father's hands. She is necessary to you. She will evoke the kindness that will keep you human. … She will remind you every day that I am who I am, that my ways are not yours. ... This little one is my sign to you. Treasure her!"
Treasure all of the precious ones by helping Ruse help Best Buddies.