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The buddy system
Children with Down syndrome enjoying annual Camp Buddy
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Campers Kristen Fears, Ella Marchese and Brenna Heape, left to right, are all smiles after playing in the gym. - photo by Photo by Paul Floeckher

To say 10-year-old Kristen Fears has been looking forward to Camp Buddy would be an understatement.

Since the end of the school year in May, she has been peppering her mom with questions about the annual summer camp in Effingham County for children with Down syndrome.

“Every day, ‘When is Camp Buddy? How many days before Camp Buddy?’” said Wendy Fears, who volunteers at the week-long camp. “(The campers) look forward to it. They love it.”

Kristen has been one of 14 children participating this week in the camp hosted by the Low Country Down Syndrome Society, now in its sixth year. Also, five children under the age of 3 have been taking part in shorter camp sessions each morning.

The camp gives the children “play with a purpose,” Wendy Fears explained. Physical, occupational and speech therapy are incorporated into their daily activities.

“They think they’re playing, but sometimes they know they’re working because these therapists work them hard,” Fears said. “Definitely, therapy is the main reason for our camp.”

The therapists lead the children through academic exercises based on their skill levels, such as reciting rhyming words or simply identifying letters. The campers build their motor skills through crafts projects and physical activities including basketball and bicycle riding.

The goal is for the children to retain the information they have learned and skills they have honed during the school year. Each camper is sent home with an individualized therapy plan.

“We’re trying to teach them not just academics, but life skills,” said Traci Whitaker, a special education teacher at Rincon Elementary who is in her fifth year with Camp Buddy. “You have to be able to use all these muscles to do other things and you have to be able to figure out how to do something, and not give up so easy. We don’t let them give up.”

One joy of Camp Buddy, according to Effingham director Molly Marchese, is seeing how much the children progress from one year to the next. Marchese’s daughter Ella, now 8, participates each year.

“You just watch them every year grow, and they all can do a little bit more than they could the year before,” Marchese said. “We’ve got some awesome kids, is all I know.”

As she works closely with each camper, Whitaker sees progress in an even shorter length of time.

“We can see in a week of camp, progression from day one to day five,” she said, “because there is no down time in our camp. We go from one thing to the next thing to the next thing.”

Along with Kristen and Wendy Fears, another member of the family is involved in the camp. Kristen’s older sister Caitlyn has volunteered before at Camp Buddy, and now she is earning job shadowing hours in the career field she is pursuing.

Caitlyn, a rising sophomore at Georgia Southern University, plans to become an occupational therapist. Having a little sister with Down syndrome played a large role in Caitlyn making that decision.

“I like helping (at the camp) because I like working with kids with Down syndrome, obviously, because I love my sister,” Caitlyn said. “It helps me too, because not only do I know these kids, but I know how to treat them. You don’t have to treat them like they’re not a normal child, because they know the difference between right and wrong, just like any other child should.”

Camp Buddy costs $30 per child, but the majority of the camp’s funding comes from the annual Buddy Walk. This year’s walk will be Oct. 4 at Forsyth Park in Savannah.

The camp was hosted by First Baptist Church of Springfield for its first five years, but moved to Rincon Elementary School this summer. Organizers saw a school as a natural fit, since the children are accustomed to working with therapists and special education teachers during the school year.

“Most of the kids already know at least one of us, so there’s a familiar face for them,” Whitaker said.

“One child particularly, his mom said that he was much more agreeable to the rigor of being here and following a schedule because it is a school,” said Molly’s husband and camp co-organizer Joe Marchese. “When we showed up at a school, (the child’s reaction) was, ‘I gotta go to work. It’s a school.’”

The camp leaders thanked the Effingham County School System for opening its doors to the camp. The partnership was a result of Superintendent Randy Shearouse visiting Camp Buddy last year, according to Molly Marchese.

“By the end of that day, when he went around to see everything, he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’” she explained.