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Cooking up something memorable at annual Camp Buddy
chef hat 1
Ella Marchese tries on her chefs hat during chef Nick Muellers visit to Camp Buddy. Each camper received a chefs hat with their name on it. - photo by Photo by Paul Floeckher

or a group of local children, a camp this week was much more than just a fun time.

Thirteen children with Down syndrome, ranging from 3 to 11 years old, enjoyed the fifth annual Camp Buddy, sponsored by the Lowcountry Down Syndrome Society.

Whether the campers were playing, dancing or making crafts, every activity was therapeutic, to help strengthen muscles or improve speech.

"It’s a whole lot of fun and learning all in one," said Joe Marchese, a camp organizer and father to a child with Down syndrome, Ella, 7.

When chef Nick Mueller visited, the children built their motor skills by making fruit kabobs and rolling pretzel dough. The therapy continued even when the children ate lunch each day, as speech therapist Helen Reynolds made sure they chewed and swallowed properly.

"So even though it looks like lunch break, they’re just continually working," Molly Marchese said.

Reynolds and other therapists work with the children during the school year. Camp Buddy helps them continue that momentum while they are out of school for the summer.

"You don’t want them to lose all that they worked so hard for in the school year," said LDSS president Candy Bogardus, whose daughter Lainey, 8, attends Camp Buddy each year.

"This provides an opportunity to keep their motivation up, do their best and maintain those successes," Bogardus continued, "so when they go back to school, they’re still where they were — and they’re probably even further ahead because they’ve had the chance to improve over the summer."

Reynolds acknowledged that progress made by a child with Down syndrome might not be easy to see week by week, but she and the campers’ parents see it from one Camp Buddy to the next.

"It’s amazing to watch them because, from year to year, you can really see that difference," Molly said. "Last year, Ella couldn’t ride and bike, and this year she can — and it was because of the things they helped teach her at Camp Buddy."

Through proceeds from the annual Buddy Walk and other fundraisers, the LDSS offers the week-long camp for just $30 per child — a reasonable price for families accustomed to paying thousands of dollars for physical, occupational and speech therapy. First Baptist Church of Springfield opens its doors to host Camp Buddy.

The camp emphasizes that the children are "differently-abled" rather than disabled, Molly said. She has been spreading that message since Ella was born with Down syndrome and people said, "I’m sorry."

"I quickly learned, why are you sorry?" she said. "She has blessed so many people just by being her."