Building a Big Buddy System: Pairing Campers and Adult Volunteers to Help Children Cope

by Lydia Gregoire

The big buddy system, used by Camp Jamie, a therapy camp for bereaved children in Frederick, Maryland, gives campers one-on-one support to help them deal with the loss of a loved one. The camp is especially designed to teach children skills to cope with grief.

Each summer, Camp Jamie brings together about twenty-five children between the ages of six and fourteen, as well as psychologists and a group of caring volunteers. Each child is paired with a volunteer, and the two become best buddies for the weekend. One to three psychologists are usually present at the camp and lead workshops that give the children outlets for their feelings. They also evaluate the children to see if they will need further counseling.

On the first evening of camp, campers and their buddies form a large circle in the main meeting house. Little buddies sit around in a small circle, and directly behind each child is their big buddy. This is called the sharing circle, which is one of the therapy sessions led by the psychologists. Usually adults share stories about loved ones they’ve lost, and then a child or two will share their experiences. This reassures all of the children that it is good to open up to others. Throughout the sharing circle, a lot of emotions and tears are shared. The psychologists help to direct and comfort the children by passing around giant teddy bears as a source of extra support.

During the weekend, campers and big buddies take part in a variety of therapeutic activities and
exciting games that promote self-
esteem. Children also have one-on-one time with their big buddies to discuss workbook activities. These workbooks have drawing and writing projects to help the children find words for their feelings. The big buddies also have the same workbook to show their little buddies how they can express themselves through their drawings. Throughout the camp session, psychologists collaborate and discuss individual cases with big buddies to see how each child is progressing. This also gives them a chance to advise big buddies on how to better help their child.

Providing a Friend Who Cares

The big buddy system gives children a friend who offers them individual attention as well as support. During funeral preparations, sometimes the young people are forgotten. This weekend of undivided attention boosts self-esteem for all the campers. Children look to their big buddies for answers that they do not always want to ask in large group discussions. Often, when campers do finally speak it is in hushed whispers away from the group. If not for the big buddy system, some children would not open up.

Using the Big Buddy System at Your Camp

Other camps considering using the big buddy system should keep in mind a few details and organizational tools that are a must for a successful camp. The most important part of developing this system is to match people carefully. Get the background on the adults and the children and compare experiences and interests. It is essential that this process be thoroughly evaluated by several people before the final decision is made. Big buddies should also receive training from the volunteer psychologists before camp so they know what to expect and have a few tools to use with their camper. The psychologists should also stress that all the volunteers are working together for the children.

Another necessity is using the support staff as a relief system for the buddies. More people volunteer at Camp Jamie than are needed and some of these volunteers are used as support staff to fill in for big buddies. Spending twenty-four hours with the same child can be frustrating if it is a difficult case. If support staff can step in for an hour or two, this gives big buddies a needed break. Also, for about an hour each night the support staff should take the little buddies out for a game so that they can have a break from their big buddies.

Activities that encourage sharing
The big buddy system also affects the types of activities offered. You need activities that can be done in pairs, such as a three-legged race or an obstacle races that need partners. Activities that require individual work are less effective because buddies do not have the chance to bond.

Flexibility and understanding
Flexibility and understanding are key elements that the entire staff must keep in mind while using the buddy system. Flexibility is important because the matching system for buddies sometimes looks good on paper, but does not work in reality. Have several alternatives matches in case someone gets sick or the match does not work out.

Big buddies need to keep in mind that their little friend may not come springing into their arms ready for love and affection. A little buddy may turn to another child or a different staff member because they can relate better to that person. This should not be taken personally; the buddy should be glad that the child was able to find a friend and open up to someone.

The Big Buddy System at Work in Other Organizations

Some associations already use the big buddy system and have found a great deal of progress with the theory. School tutoring sessions are usually done on a one-on-one basis, which is similar to the buddy system. A trust is developed between the tutor and the student so that they can work through course material effectively. The approach used by Big Brothers, Big Sisters is similar to the big buddy system in that children and adults are paired so the child has an adult role model and friend to lean on in times of peer pressure and doubt.

As valuable as the companionship of a buddy can be, it is important to recognize that this system may not work for all camps. Sports camps may not be able to use the buddies when they are trying to develop a team. Camaraderie is needed on the field and it is best for the players to bond with one another so they can work as a well-oiled machine. Most summer camps will not have the funds or enough volunteers to make the buddy system a success. However, if you are trying to reach youth in need and have the resources, the big buddy system will pay off with high rewards for both your campers and their buddies.

Originally published in the 2000 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.