L-R: Beau LeBlond, Mateo Maughlin, Sebastian Guerrero, Natalie Carlson, Hanyul Lim, Bryson Wyland, Yuvi Singh and Leo Thomas engage in indoor activities during the Robin and Mani's All Buddy Camp Credit: Credit: Robin and Mani's All Buddy Camp

The Charlottesville and Albemarle County Parks and Recreation departments held the second annual Robin and Mani’s All Buddy Camp earlier this month.

The camp was created in 2015 to honor Robin Aldridge, a special-needs preschool teacher, and her daughter, Mani, a Charlottesville High School student, who were both killed in December 2014.

The weeklong session was based at Johnson Elementary School and included 12 high school students, or Big Buddies, and 12 children with special needs, or Little Buddies.

Like last year, the camp was structured around daily art activities and local field trips. This year, however, the camp’s organizers worked to include children with more severe disabilities.

“Robin was a special-education teacher, and her message was to include kids with disabilities in all activities, camp included,” said Sarah Blech, manager of therapeutic programs for Charlottesville Parks and Recreation. “Part of our mission this year was really trying to target kids who couldn’t function in a typical camp environment.”

During the application process, the camp’s organizers told local teachers they were specifically seeking higher-needs children to participate.

“Last year, for example, we didn’t necessarily accept kids that were not fully potty-trained,” camp director Mary Beth Bajikar said. “We had a lot more kids on the autism spectrum who needed the use of visuals, kids that probably needed a lot more sensory breaks this year than we did our first year.”

Accommodating these campers meant that the Big Buddy training needed to emphasize the use of visual tools. Those with autism spectrum disorders may have difficulty expressing themselves verbally and following spoken instructions, and visual tools are commonly used to facilitate communication and understanding.

“We definitely [want] to keep expanding the type of kids that we’re able to help provide this awesome experience for.”

Mary Beth Bajikar

Mary Beth Bajikar

One of these tools was a set of cards the Big Buddies wore on lanyards that included directions like “stop,” “quiet,” “sit” and “clean up,” along with simple illustrations. The camp also created schedules with illustrations of the day’s activities that could be removed as each activity was completed, allowing campers to see what was coming next.

According to Bajikar, last year’s Big Buddies sometimes struggled to put their training into practice. This year’s training focused more on applying tools and anticipating Little Buddies’ needs.

“A lot of our kids, for them to be able to regulate and function in a camp setting, they’re going to need reminders that we’re transitioning, they’re going to need to see you count down for them, they’re going to need to see their schedules so they know what’s coming next,” said Bajikar. “We were more intentional in our training with [the Big Buddies]. We offered a little bit of a role-play scenario for them to be able to try out the visuals.”

More than 20 high school juniors and seniors applied to be Big Buddies, partly thanks to word-of-mouth from last year’s participants. Students were accepted from Charlottesville, Albemarle and Monticello high schools.

Three of those students were Big Buddies last year. The other campers benefited from the returning Big Buddies’ prior experience.

“They understood what the day looked like, they understood the visuals better,” said Blech. “They were able to give suggestions to the new Buddies and talk with them about what their experience had been the year before.”

Bajikar said the returning Buddies also were better prepared to work with some of the higher-needs campers.

“They were more comfortable coming in, more able to give their Little Buddies choices and work with them when they had challenges right from the beginning,” Bajikar explained.

Businesses and schools have offered resources and support to the camp, allowing the Little Buddies to participate in an array of unique activities.

The camp’s activities this session included a mini petting zoo, a cooking class at the PB&J Fund, wall climbing at Camp Holiday Trails, recording an original camp song at the Music Resource Center, a tour of the Charlottesville Fire Department and cupcake decorating at Sweethaus.

“The community had such a warm reception to us coming [for field trips],” said Blech. “The schools give us in-kind in terms of a building and a site, and Albemarle gave us school buses this year.”

Though campers and organizers would like to see the camp run for a longer term or include more participants, Blech is not sure when such expansion might happen.

“It’s a huge commitment to do one week. We hire staff and train the Buddies,” Blech explained. “But the need is certainly there, whether we do two sessions at the same time or we do one two-week session.”

Bajikar shared the hope that the camp will continue to grow and increase its outreach, furthering Robin’s mission.

“We definitely [want] to keep expanding the type of kids that we’re able to help provide this awesome experience for,” Bajikar said.