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Brookfield Brother-Sister Duo Combat Disabilities

Damian survived cancer — twice. Chelsea is raising two children on the autism spectrum. And now they're working toward stepping up the standards on viewing disabilities.

They come from an everyday Brookfield home, not from a rich or philanthropic background. But siblings Chelsea Budde and Damian Buchman are working to make the world a better place after hurdles in their own lives sparked a drastic and immediate need for change. 

This duo has both faced major adversity in their lives, with Budde raising two children on the autism spectrum and Buchman surviving a two-time, one-in-one-billion cancer diagnosis. But those hurdles have driven the creation of Good Friend, Inc., a program that teaches awareness, empathy and acceptance, and a mission to build The Ability Center, a facility specifically designed for individuals with physical and mental disabilities. 

"There is zero other philanthropy in the family, which is what I think is awesome here," Buchman said. "We were both faced with some kind of adversity during different points of our lives and we both took that adversity and made something tremendously positive out of it. Not just to impact our own lives, but to ensure we impact all the other lives around us and truly make a difference in this world through what we’ve been faced with."

Buchman, a possible double-amputee

Today, Buchman lives in Wauwatosa and walks with a normal gait, sits casually in a standard chair and doesn't emit a hint of his "handicap."

Just days shy of his 13th birthday, Buchman was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare canacer in both his legs. He faces the reality that someday, he may be completely confined to a wheelchair. From the knees down, he has had a complete resconstruction with metal implants. 

"I am a two-time, one-in-one-billion survivor of my childhood cancer diagnosis," Buchman said. "I walk that line knowing I have a pretty high probability of being a double amputee which either puts me in prosthetics or wheelchairs."

His mission began with founding Super Gimp. Its website says it's a non-profit organization that "aims to provide therapeutic recreational and competitive athletic and fitness opportunities to children and adults with disabilities."

"The idea was only to provide sports and fitness to people with physical disabilities. The issue was we couldn’t find any place to do that," he said. "Nobody had time available and usually it was inaccessible anyway. So that’s where the idea of the Ability Center was born."

Gyms and fitness centers are supposedly ADA accessible, meaning they can accommodate someone who has a disability, like confinement to a wheelchair. But Buchman said being ADA accessible and ADA friendly are entirely different. Consider push-button access at a public entrance.

"The push-button is usually in the most ridiculously terrible spot to get to in order to push it," he said. "Sometimes, either I push it and the door is hitting me, or I push it and by the time I can get back to it, the door is already closing. I think about this because I could reach the point where I’m a bi-lateral, above the knee amputee and I could be in a wheelchair in the future, so I think about that."

As a disabled person, he said it's uncomfortable to try to work out and stay physically active at a gym. Many of the machines are not built for someone with a disability, mental or physical. Because of that, heart disease, obesity and diabetes are often bigger issues than the disability itself, Buchman said. 

"They’re (the disabled) not going to feel welcome or wanted and there’s nothing designed at the pace for them," he said. "There aren’t any fitness classes designed for people like me with a disability. I just felt out of place."

The focus of the Ability Center is to create an environment for everyone, Buchman said, able and disabled. So, for example, a family of four with one child confined to a wheelchair can all jump in wheelchairs and play basketball together — on the same level. 

Although still in the fundraising stange, Buchman's ultimate goal is to raise $53 million to build a series of four fitness centers. Each would focus on a different sport. The first would be 200,000 square feet, housing six, full-size basketball courts, 12 volleyball courts, a 6-lane 200-meter track, and a 32-foot climbing wall. Buchman said it's comparable to Curves, which is open only to women. 

"You’re welcome and you’re not being stared at, those kinds of things," Buchman said. "Sometimes, that’s all somebody needs, a place where someone feels welcome, invited and it’s their environment and they belong there today."

Chelsea is more than, 'Just a Mom'

Budde has two children, 14 and 11, both on the autism spectrum. Today, she is many things, but a stay-at-home Waukesha mom is only one of them. 

"Even though we’re ‘just moms,’ and we get that all the time when you’re ‘just moms.’ You’re not classroom administrators, you’re not teachers, you don’t have PhDs, you’re not a researcher," she said. "I didn’t want to have to apologize to anyone for being a mom first."

When her daughter was about to enter kindergarten and her son was in second grade, another mom with an autistic child approached Budde about making a film to teach children about autism. 

Inclusion in Wisconsin schools incorporates children with disabilities right into an everyday classroom. While Budde said this is good for autistic children, it doesn't help typically developing children to understand how another student may be different. 

"Kids have a tendency to kind of avoid things they don’t understand and even worse, if they don’t understand it, they’ll find a way to tease it so they feel like they have some power over the unknown," Budde said. "That’s kind of where it looked like it was heading for our kids."

And Good Friends, Inc. was born. 

Good Friends, Inc. aims "to create autism awareness, teach acceptance of differences, and foster empathy among typically-developing peers," according to the website. Using videos, children are taught about what it means to be a good friend and helps teach understanding of children with disabilities. 

Budde said it just blossomed from from making a video to developing a curriculum, to getting into middle schools to doing presentations at the high school level.

"Our last film won (an award) in the same categories that Disney won awards in. It’s so amazing," she said. "That’s as close to the Academy Awards as I’ll ever get. Our next big goal is to raise the $10,000 to create the elementary school film, which we still hope to release in 2013, but we can’t start producing until we get the budget set."

Great spouses keep food on the table

Both Budde and Buchman have full plates between their non-profits and raising children, they say, but each credits their spouses for keeping food on the table when non-profit work really is non-for-profit.

"We both have spouses that believe in what we're doing and believe in it with their whole heart," Budde said. "My husband recognizes that this is better for our kids, better for them not just now but 10, 20 years from now and he recognizes the value. So, he works two jobs and works extra hard to make sure I don’t have to make any money."

And it's no different for Buchman.

"My wife works at Children’s Hospital and she works with some of my old doctors from when I was sick," he said. "She gets the need of something like The Ability Center because she sees all the disabilities that happen. Three out of five kids that are diagnosed with cancer are going to have a disability when they come out of it. So, she works with kids with cancer, so she gets it."

Sherri February 05, 2013 at 12:41 AM
So proud of Damian...a former student of mine in the Elmbrook district. What I love most...is he is always willing to give back. He has worked with students at WHMS more than once and again will be working with us. The kids love him and he is a true hero and motivator for young people.

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