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Tushar Bacon's learning to cook and clean and care for himself, which isn't always easy because he has mental retardation.

His life right now is full of firsts. He's in his first apartment. And he has his first non-family friend, a "Best Buddy" named David Heaps.The two were paired through a program called "Best Buddy Citizens," which matches people who have mental retardation with a friend from the community. Both are volunteers, paired because of shared interests and geographic proximity.

Best Buddies, which operates out of the Utah Special Olympics office in Salt Lake, has matched 25 pairs so far. But they have more than 300 people with mental retardation who are hoping to be assigned a special friend.

Each of Utah's universities also has an active Best Buddy program, according to Anthony Kennedy Shriver. His mother, Eunice Shriver, founded Special Olympics when he was a child. As a student at Georgetown University, he founded Best Buddies, which is now active at more than 170 universities and in several countries. Utah is only the second state to have its own non-university program as well.

Shriver is in Salt Lake City this week to raise money to support the local program and to promote it.

The buddy citizen signs on for at least a year and undergoes criminal background checks and a home visit. The buddy agrees to see his friend at least two or three times a month. They talk weekly by telephone. In the case of Heaps and Bacon, that phone contact occurs almost every day.

Sometimes they go bowling or to a movie. Bacon is a devoted Star Trek fan and Heaps is learning a lot about the Enterprise, the starship in the series. Sundays, Bacon goes to Heaps' house for dinner. Sometimes they go to Bacon's house.

Heaps learned about the program through his employer, Discover Card, which actively recruited Best Buddies from its work force.

It piqued his interest. "I had never done community service. And the woman talking to us about it said something that stuck with me - something about getting out of your comfort zone. It sounded nice."

Michele Spears, state director, believes that the program offers people that and more. Someone who has never been exposed to people with a disability doesn't realize how much ability the disabled have, she said. The program teaches folks to interact with all sorts of people.

"It's an incredible eye-opener," said Shriver, who has an aunt with mental retardation. "It breaks down barriers and gives people an opportunity to get into the community and find out what kind of community we really live in. It's an opportunity to enter their lives and change both for the good."

Shriver knows very bright, successful people who are lonely. People with mental retardation feel even more isolated, he said. They relish the chance to get out, "even just for a Coke at McDonald's or a movie."

The program opens doors for the person with a disability, he said. "Other things start occurring. Maybe they get the self-esteem to live on their own. They see other people building their dreams, and it opens their horizons to build on dreams they might have. They see people with goals and they go after their own goals, which may be different but are there."

Spears and Shriver estimate that each match costs about $100 in terms of staff time and paperwork. Volunteers help. Considering the reward to both buddies and the community, they call it a bargain.

The qualifications are simple: "People with a lot of energy, spunk, some time and a big heart," Shriver said.

To find out about the program, call Spears at 532-8500.