The Charlottesville and Albemarle parks and recreation departments have partnered to create a summer camp in honor of Robin and Mani Aldridge, a mother and daughter who were killed in December.

Robin was a beloved special-needs preschool teacher in Albemarle County Public Schools. Mani, a student at Charlottesville High School, often assisted in Robin’s summer classes and had a passion for the arts.

Gene Everett Washington, 30, was indicted by a Charlottesville grand jury Monday on two charges of first-degree murder in the slayings of the Aldridges. The case is set to go to trial in September.

“It has helped all of us work through our grief to be working toward something that Robin would have loved to be involved with and [something that] Mani would have loved to participate in,” said Sarah Blech, manager of therapeutic programs for Charlottesville Parks and Recreation and chief organizer of the camp.

Robin and Mani’s All Buddy Camp pairs preschool students with disabilities with high school volunteers who serve as their “big buddies” for the week. The camp, which began Monday and will run through Friday, focuses on the creative arts, music and recreation.

“We have combined the things that brought Robin and Mani joy, and brought them into the camp,” said Helene Freiman, lead occupational therapist for the Piedmont Regional Educational Program and a member of the camp’s steering committee.

Blech said she heard about a “buddy camp” for special-needs preschoolers in Salem the very weekend that the Aldridges were killed. She said she found immediate and overwhelming support for doing something similar in Charlottesville.

“This may be the first committee I’ve ever started where people have actually asked to be on it,” Blech said.

The steering committee appointed Stony Point Elementary preschool teacher Mary Beth Bajikar as camp director. Rachel McLaughlin, a fine-arts teacher at Charlottesville High, was appointed assistant director. McLaughlin was Mani’s art teacher, and Bajikar had worked closely with Robin Aldridge.

“This camp is definitely filling a need,” Bajikar said. “It’s amazing for kids to have this special-needs program and to watch the peer mentoring that is happening. Their big buddies are right there, encouraging them that they can do it.”

Other members of the steering committee said they have been equally impressed with the high school volunteers, who had to apply for the big buddy position and received training the day before camp began.

“It blows your mind how beautiful it is,” Freiman said after she spent a day at the camp. “The big buddies are so involved and everyone is having fun. Everybody has smiles all day long.”

There are 12 buddy pairs in the camp, drawn from both the Charlottesville and Albemarle schools. A typical day consists of art activities, outdoor adventures and a field trip.

Buddies travel everywhere holding hands, and at any given moment a chorus of “good job” can be heard as the high school students provide encouragement to their younger partners.

“The little buddies are amazing,” said volunteer Louis Ackerman, a rising junior at CHS.

Kayla Gavin, also a CHS student, agreed.

“My favorite part [of the camp] is connecting with the kids,” she said. “There is always someone coming up to hug you.”

Parks department staff said the goal of the camp is to help the preschool participants develop their social skills and fine motor skills, as well as to build their self-esteem.

The high school students say the camp has helped them grow, as well.

“I’ve improved my patience,” Gavin said, “and we’re learning how to approach every situation with positivity.”

In addition, there is hope that the big buddies will take inspiration from the experience and pursue further work in realms such as special education or art therapy.

Gavin says the experience has been helpful for envisioning future career paths as she is thinking of becoming a teacher of young children.

Members of the committee said they hope to continue the camp in future years.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for our community to be able to honor Robin and Mani in this way that honors what they were both all about,” Bajikar said.

On Wednesday, the buddies ventured to the Music Resource Center to record a camp song they had written alongside local music therapist Kathy Bollinger.

“Little buddy camp is fun, fun, fun,” their voices rang out in the studio. “Fun for everyone.”

Dasani Williams, 5, intently creates some artwork during the Robin and Mani’s All Buddy Camp
at Jackson Via elementary school
Credit: Andrew Shurtleff, The Daily Progress