The award-winning UCSB chapter of Best Buddies is looking to make new friends.

The goal of the program is to enhance the lives of people with mental disabilities by providing the chance for a good friendship, said third year sociology and communication major Elizabeth Wieland, director of the UCSB chapter. The parent organization, Best Buddies International, started in 1989 and has grown to more than a thousand chapters at middle schools, high schools and college campuses worldwide. Wieland said many people mistakenly assume people with mental disabilities are unable to have normal lives.

“That’s a misconception,” said Wieland. “They really are adults who lead lives and hold down normal jobs like the rest of us. In previous years a lot of people flaked out, and buddies were ditched. But last year we had a core group of officers and everyone really put in the time to go to events and participate.”

The Best Buddies International Board of Directors recently awarded the UCSB chapter with the Outstanding Chapter Award for their work with people with mental disabilities in 2003-2004. The award is a first for the chapter since its establishment in 1991. Wieland and the group’s previous treasurer, third year political science and sociology major Paige Ryder, accepted the award in July on behalf of the chapter.

Of the more than 1,000 chapters worldwide, UCSB was among the 18 chapters selected for the award. Both Wieland and California College Program Manager Stephen Holland said the award was well deserved.

Ryder said she loves the program and its people.

“It’s a person you’re dealing with,” she said. “It’s not a task like homework or something. We want to provide an example to the community that it’s okay to hang out with people with mental disabilities. It’s just like a regular relationship with any of your other friends.”

Last year, group activities included a barbecue at the beach, going to the movies, trips to Magic Mountain and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, and an end of the year banquet.

Students in the organization must meet a set of minimum requirements, such as talking to their buddies at least once a week, as well spending time with their buddies twice a month. Members are also expected to attend monthly meetings.

“We want people willing to commit to their friendship and to make a sincere effort,” Ryder said.

Best Buddies at UCSB will host an informational meeting for students interested in participating in the organization Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. in the Community Affairs Board office, located in the Associated Students building across from Corwin Pavilion.