Photos by Marty Gordon
A buddy helps a camper at last week’s Jill’s Buddy Camp in Christiansburg to fish at a local pond. Fishing was one of the many activities campers enjoyed throughout the week.

Six-year-old Warren had never really caught a fish, but this past week, he was one of 16 participants that had a chance to spend a morning at a local fishpond.

His buddy, William, was a middle-schooler who held the fishing rod for him.

The two sat on the bank of the pond, waiting for a bite. It finally came as the two reeled in a small fish, and Warren smiled from ear to ear.

This story is similar for many who have attended the “Jill Buddy Camp” at the Christiansburg Recreation Department. Buddies provided assistance to campers as they enjoyed activities at a unique week-long camp.

In cooperation with Montgomery County Public Schools, special needs children got a chance to experience things they may never have before. The campers ranged from ages five to seven, and the camp included activities like swimming, fishing and hiking with almost 30 youngsters acting as buddies.

Brad Epperley, the director of the Christiansburg Recreation Department, started the program here after being involved with it in Salem.

Buddy Camp was developed in 1981 by Dr. Tommy Barber, who was then the Director of Special Education/School Psychologist in the Galax City Public Schools system. Dr. Barber later became employed by Salem City Schools and implemented the camp in Salem in 1984.

Funding through the school system for the camp became scarce, and ended in the summer of 2012. Jill Bailey Chenet and her unborn child drowned on July 25, 2012, and Jill’s tragic death initiated the re-start of Buddy Camp at East Salem Elementary School in Salem in 2013, with funding being provided by private and community-raised funds. Thus, the name “Jill’s Buddy Camp.”

This is when Epperley and Barber formed a friendship as they both coached football at Salem High School. Many evenings they spent time scouting opposing teams. They struck up conversations and quickly determined they both had a passion for helping our community and for providing opportunities for children with disabilities.

“I had been with the Christiansburg Parks and Recreation Department for about a year when Dr. Barber and I spoke about possibly starting a Jill’s Buddy Camp in our area. We would be the first Parks and Recreation Department to work in partnership with a school system to accomplish this task. All other buddy camps had only been provided by school systems. We felt we had the perfect combination – the Parks and Recreation Department could provide the facilities and programming support, while the school system could provide the professional educational services needed for the campers to benefit,” Epperley said.

Campers at Jill’s Buddy Camp also had a chance to visit a local farm to see horses and other animals they might not on a regular basis.

The first attempt to start the Jill Buddy Camp in Christiansburg was unsuccessful in 2014 because of the lack of funding.

“During the summer of 2014, I was determined to find a way to provide this camp in our community. We decided to host a Home Run contest as part of a skills competition during a Youth Baseball World Series, and we raised more than $2,000. After sparking the interest of the community through that contest, we had a couple local organizations that donated funds as well. Once we had the funds secure, Dr. Barber and I met with the newly hired Director of Special Education Dr. Pat Nelson, Dr. Julie Ligeon and Kathleen Wright from the school system, and after some discussion, we realized our dream of having a Jill’s Buddy Camp in Christiansburg was going to be a reality,” Epperley said.

 Jill’s Buddy Camp started in 2015 in Christiansburg and is now in its third year. The mission of the camp is to provide a free, therapeutic summer camp experience for children with disabilities.

“Each child is paired with a teenage buddy for the entire two-week camp, and in addition to the benefits to the child, the teenage buddy receives valuable volunteer and career exploration experiences. It is a life-changing experience for everyone involved,” Epperley said.

Each camper was paired with a “buddy” for the week that seemed to get as much and maybe even more out of the experience.

The mission of the camp was to provide a free, therapeutic summer camp experience for children with disabilities.

“Each child is paired with a teenage buddy for the entire two-week camp, and in addition to the benefits to the child, the teenage buddy receives valuable volunteer and career exploration experiences. It is a life-changing experience for everyone involved,” Epperley said.

Many of the buddies have returned year after year to help with the activities. “We have a few repeat campers, and a large majority of our teenage buddies are 3-time repeat buddies. This is a proven factor of the gratifying experience that this camp provides,” he said.

Of course, Jill’s Buddy Camp is a different type of summer camp.

During the week, the campers completed tasks that helped with language development and social/emotional development, along with motor skills. The campers took part in music and art activities and traveled on exciting field trips like the NRV Superbowl, Mill Mountain Zoo and the Christiansburg Fire Department. They also planned to go to Cox’s Putt Putt and Batting Cages, Music Milestones and 5J Farm.

Epperley swells with pride when he talks about the camp and its success.

“I have seen campers change their lives through this camp, and I have seen teenage buddies step outside of their comfort zone and develop compassion and understanding while providing overwhelming encouragement to their camper. It is very difficult to put into words how great the success of this camp really is,” he said.

Epperley walked around the fish pond on Thursday, making sure everyone had fresh bait for a chance to catch that big fish. He smiled from ear to ear as a buddy and camper pulled in a small bass. They held it up for a photograph with all the excitement of catching their first fish. “That’s great,” he said.

That is the reaction with which he hoped everyone left the week.

There are also buddy camps in Salem and Charlottesville, but the Christiansburg camp is the only one that provides a partnership between a recreation department and a school system.

“The partnership between the Christiansburg Parks and Recreation Department and the Montgomery County Public School System allows us to best serve our community and team up to provide many resources to make this camp a huge success. We hope to be a trendsetter, increasing awareness about the camp and encouraging other localities – both throughout the state and throughout the nation – to jump on board,” Epperley said.

He would like to see the camp to expand not only within our area and state but also nationally. Epperley recently discussed that idea with the Virginia Parks and Recreation Society in hopes of increasing awareness of the camp.

After the presentation, the Charlottesville Parks and Recreation Department started a buddy camp in their area. There are also other localities throughout the state that are moving toward offering buddy camps.

Recently, Epperley has been contacted by a group in Charlotte, North Carolina, that wants to start Jill’s Buddy Camp in their area. He plans to meet with them in the near future to make their dream a reality.

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