By Bill Sumrall
First United Methodist Church Alexandria
Michelle Smith's oldest son, Casen, joined Buddy Camp at FUMC Alexandria about 13 years ago as a camper. Casen has autism, and last week at age 18 he served as a counselor while his younger sisters Marley and Mazzie came as campers. Over 100 children (campers), 100 counselors (teens), and 30 adults celebrated the final week of the 18th annual Buddy Camp summer events at First United Methodist Church Alexandria (FUMCA) with prayers and praise to God at the closing ceremony on Friday, August 4. Smith described the week-long camp as an "absolute God-send."
"When Casen was young, he wasn't able to go to VBS. He wasn't able to participate in all the camps and stuff that other kids his age were able to participate in because he had special needs." She continued to explain that Buddy Camp is a place where her children and their peers "feel loved and accepted" and that it "bridges the gap between summer and school. The friendships that Casen has made at Buddy Camp have carried on throughout the school year. He still has friends here now that he met when he was six years old. It helps him to understand that God made us all unique and special, and Casen likes to feel part of a community. He loves feeling a part of the Buddy Camp family. We've been blessed ..."
The ministry began in 2000 when a member of FUMCA, Stacey Debevec Caplan, decided to pursue a dream. She and a group of Christ-led volunteers from the church started the first week-long camp. The vision was to create a space where children with different abilities could find community, and where bridges could be built between the worlds of special ability and "normal development." They designed it intentionally to include pairing a child of different ability with a child of regular developmental ability. These children are then mentored and cared for by teen volunteers throughout the week under the close supervision of adult Buddy parents. Working alongside these volunteers are many adults from the greater Alexandria/Pineville community who share a love for God and neighbor, as well as many staff from Christus Cabrini Pediatric Therapy Center, one of Buddy Camp's primary community sponsors.
Lauren Guillory began working Buddy Camp 10 years ago as a staff member from the Pediatric Therapy Center. This summer she served her fourth year as director of one of the three week-long sessions now available. Guillory explains that "the activities that we do are modified so that anyone can participate based on what their abilities are ... whether they are in a wheelchair or a walker, hearing or visually impaired. This is the only camp like this that takes the special needs (of these children) into consideration."
Campers are rotated through four different spaces that include daily swimming, arts/crafts, a gym activity, and "Buddy Time" -- a class deliberately focused on social skills and building friendships. The one-to-one ratio of campers to counselors encourages that friendship and relational building as well. Michelle Smith explained that "many kids never have the opportunity to sit next to someone who might be in a wheelchair or have autism or be deaf or have the challenge of prosthetic legs. They never get a chance to know these kids. I think it breaks down the barriers and the fear, helping them to realize that we have more in common than we do differences. I think that's a great thing for these kids to take with them as they get older."
Church member Randy Miller has volunteered since the creation of the camp. He and his wife, Judy, their children, and now their grandson have helped this ministry to continue growing throughout the last 18 years. This past week he shared that "it's a really great program. It's tiring. It gets you out of your comfort zone. It expects kids to be responsible for others when you're a teenager. Whoever you talk to, they're the one who thought they got the benefit from it. It didn't matter whether it was the child or the parent or the counselor or the Buddy parent ... every group came back thinking how wonderfully special this is. We've been very blessed to have this go on for 18 years."
Ashley McGuire, senior pastor at FUMCA, reflected on the camp from two angles. "As a mother, I have two boys enjoying life as campers this week. They are making friends, having fun, and talking about the other campers in similarities rather than differences. It's amazing to watch them and all the children interact with a love that can only come from and through God's Spirit. As a pastor, I am honored to be working alongside a church and community that honors God by caring so deeply for people ... people who are unique and wonderfully made in the image of our God. It's a blessing to witness how they bless others and are blessed in return ... a momentary glimpse of what the Kingdom of Heaven must be like."
Buddy Camp is free for all participants, relying on donations, grants, and fundraisers throughout the year. For more information on how to donate to or participate in this life-changing ministry, check the church's website at www.FUMCA.org/Buddy or find it on Facebook.