Building a Better World through Philanthropy, Fraternity, Fellowship, and Fun

Brandon G. Briery, PhD
Zack Agerton
January 2019
photo from above - working on a project together

Brandon Briery on the Ability Experience at Camp CAMP

"What did you do last summer?" For most of you, this question conjures images of campfires, canoes, horses, swimming, and lots of energy, enthusiasm, and excitement from smiling and eager campers. If you asked most people, "What do you think a bunch of fraternity brothers did last summer?" they might tend to picture other images in their minds. Those images, however, would be very wrong for the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity brothers who are part of the group’s national philanthropy the Ability Experience.

A movement started in the United States in the late 1960s and throughout the next two decades toward deinstitutionalizing individuals with disabilities, making it more possible for them to remain in homes with their families, attend schools with their less challenged peers, and be more involved with and welcomed in the general public. During this same time period, camps serving these special populations began to form across the United States.

In 1977, some forward-thinking leaders in the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity pioneered a philanthropic venture aimed at supporting camps serving people with disabilities. The name of their service organization has evolved over the past 42 years, but what has become known as the "Ability Experience" is described as an "unparalleled success in the Greek world." Their mission is to "use shared experiences to support people with disabilities and develop the men of Pi Kappa Phi into servant leaders."

Today, these young men share a vision to "create a community, one relationship at a time, where the abilities of all people are recognized and valued." To accomplish this they engage in fund-raising — with their efforts raising over $750,000 every year! These funds enable teams of volunteers (made up of Pi Kappa Phi brothers) to travel around the country, visit camps serving people with disabilities, and purchase supplies and materials for their projects. Their projects may include building new, accessible amenities, constructing facilities, or renovating those that already exist — helping those camps better serve their campers.

It is through these weeklong service projects that take place each summer (Build America), and regional weekend service projects that occur during the school year (Ability Camps), that I first became acquainted with these amazing young men from Pi Kappa Phi. I work at Camp CAMP (Children’s Association for Maximum Potential), a camp serving children and adults with special needs, which was started in 1979, just a couple of years after the Ability Experience got its start. Over the past several years, CAMP has been honored to host several groups during both Ability Camps and Build America projects.

In 2015, a Pi Kappa Phi brother who was with the Ability Experience as its assistant executive director, and then executive director, from its early beginnings, made his way from his home in North Carolina to Camp CAMP in the Texas Hill Country to volunteer his time and skills to assist us as we searched for a new facilities manager. It quickly became apparent that Ken Kaiser was the candidate we were looking for, and what started as a few weeks of volunteering has now turned into a few years of dedicated service in that role. Kaiser’s unique connection to the Ability Experience has further strengthened Camp CAMP’s relationship with this amazing group of guys, and at its heart, connection is what it’s all about.

Kaiser describes the atmosphere surrounding an Ability Experience group’s arrival at camp as follows:

As the team arrives in several vehicles covered with logos from their many corporate sponsors, you notice an immediate jump in energy and spirit around camp. The guys wear work uniforms during the day and team T-shirts in the evening, making it clear who they are. They come representing colleges and universities from across the country, and for the campers — and often the staff too — they practically achieve automatic celebrity status. They are perceived as the "cool kids," and their enthusiastic engagement with campers of varying abilities through meals and activities effortlessly brings the campers into their "cool kids club."

These guys also redefine stereotypes and leave the hang-ups of much of society far behind. They jump right into the camp culture, allowing themselves to become targets during a "messy night" activity, a swim buddy at the pool, a two-step partner at the dance, or the teacher of a new game or song they’ve learned at another camp. While they bring an impressive set of tools with them as well, and build lasting legacies for the camps they visit, perhaps the most salient legacies for the campers and the guys themselves are the connections they create, the fun they facilitate, and the boost to campers’ self-esteem they inspire.

Over the past 30 years, Pi Kappa Phi brothers have supported projects at Camp CAMP through labor, love, and over $30,000 worth of funding. At Camp CAMP, and probably at any of the camps they’ve supported through their efforts over the years, you can stand in the middle of camp and walk in almost any direction and find something that was built, repaired, or otherwise upgraded by this phenomenal set of young men. Among the recent projects completed by the Ability Experience at Camp CAMP over the past several years are:

  • Renovated an old under-utilized building to be a much-needed main office at Camp CAMP, including an entry deck with accessible ramp
  • Cleared trees and brush, built a fence, and built a shade/petting structure for our mini horses
  • Built a "Swingzebo" next to our dining hall (including wheelchair-accessible swings) where CAMPers can relax and enjoy the great outdoors while having conversations with their friends
  • Built a new lifeguard stand for the Slow River at our Aquatics Center
  • Cleared space and built another swing structure and fence along our riverfront area, creating another relaxation and conversation space for our CAMPers where they can also enjoy beautiful views of the Guadalupe River

This is just a sampling of the projects the Ability Experience has completed at Camp CAMP alone, but their reach touches camps and campers from coast to coast. Now I’m going to let Zack Agerton, regional director of Chapter Services at the Ability Experience, tell you more about what they do and how your camp can apply to receive a grant.

Zack Agerton on the Ability Experience and Build America

We at the Ability Experience strive to provide opportunities for our members to gain valuable life lessons in leadership through service, which aides people with disabilities. Our organization provides these opportunities in various ways, but one of our focuses is on construction. Throughout the year we will set up regional construction projects, called Ability Camps, all over the country. Our goal for 2019 is to host 22 Ability Camps over a single weekend. The participating camps will be provided a $5,000 grant to host approximately 40 volunteers. These volunteers are typically unskilled, and we do not provide tools. We ask that camps/organizations hosting an Ability Camp feed and provide lodging for our volunteers from Friday evening to Sunday at lunch. Furthermore, the grant is to only be used for the materials and tools needed for the projects the volunteers will be doing.

Our men have had the opportunity to build amazing things over the years, such as accessible nature boardwalks, wheelchair ramps, playgrounds, and much more. To apply to host an Ability Camp at your facility, you can visit abilityexperience.org/construction-grant-application/.

In the summer, we provide another construction-oriented program called "Build America." Over six weeks, 20 members of Pi Kappa Phi will travel to six different camps to build accessible amenities. The team is trained heavily in tool use prior to the trip and will travel with enough power tools to conquer most projects. The camps will be provided with a $5,000 grant and asked to host and lodge a team from Sunday to Friday morning. The men work throughout the day but eat and partake in evening programming with campers. In five days, the men are able to accomplish an amazing amount of work, building climbing walls, nature trails, large pavilions, and so much more. If you want them to build something truly amazing, then we challenge you to match the grant with other funds so we can do even more. The men have an absolute blast and bring an energy that the campers feed off of as well.

Fraternity Brothers Talk Benefits beyond Building

Fraternity brother Oscar Urquiza said, “I did Build America to put my summer to good use and help those in need. I wanted to make the lives of those with disabilities better and serve the disabled community. I wanted to grow as a servant leader and expand my horizons by traveling and learning about other cultures while helping others. My experience so far has been amazing. I have seen many beautiful places and met such great people along the way — experience that has really changed my life. My favorite part by far was at Camp Allyn when I was playing catch with Matty and he stopped the game to tell me he was going to miss his family and that that was us. We were his family.”

Fraternity brother Jake Pollack said, “Working with so many individuals with disabilities has allowed me to open my eyes to how much need there is in this world. Need for assistance, and need for love and compassion. I will never overlook an individual again for his or her ability to do a task or how they live life. It is a blessing to have had this experience and make so many new friends and memories.”


Brandon G. Briery, PhD, is a clinical child and pediatric psychologist, published researcher, author, and international speaker. Involved in camps for children with special needs since 1992, he’s been employed by Camp CAMP since 2007. He spins some mean tunes as CAMP DJ, his favorite "job" at Camp CAMP.

Zack Agerton is regional director of Chapter Services for Pi Kappa Phi’s Ability Experience.

The Ability Experience strives to break down barriers and leave behind old stereotypes of both fraternity men and people with disabilities. If you are interested in hosting either an Ability Camp or a Build America project at your camp, contact Zack Agerton at zagerton@abilityexperience.org or (678) 936-2283.

Photo courtesy of Ability Experience, Charlotte, North Carolina.