What It Means to Be a Buddy

November 2018
Campers celebrating

Extra Special People (ESP) is a nonprofit located in Watkinsville, Georgia, that serves people with all types of special needs by providing them with ways to engage, connect, and thrive through year-round programs. Then, during the months of June and July, something magical happens — ESP Summer Camp! We host eight wonderful, wacky weeks of camp programs, including four weeks of engaging day camp at our building, two weeks of field trips, and two weeks of overnight camp. ESP summers include all of the standard fun of camp with arts and crafts, sports, and afternoons spent swimming, but a handful of unique ESP traditions make summer truly enchanting for our campers. One of those special traditions is Flag. We sing camp songs, put on crazy skits, and celebrate the achievements of each camper. Over the past summer, I had the privilege of taking part in this crazy fun by serving on ESP's summer leadership team. I co-led our morning Flag Circle as well as activities during our day camp. Most importantly, though, I had the opportunity to be a Buddy.

One constant through all of ESP's programs is our "Buddy" system. At ESP, each camper is paired up during programs with a counselor or volunteer. Our Buddy system provides participants, each of whom has their own unique, special needs for support and engagement, with a one-on-one connection. The participant's Buddy is trained to assist them in any activity, but more crucially, they are there to create a bond with the participant and make sure they feel welcomed and at home. No child at ESP is ever told they can't do something; their disability never limits their opportunities. Through supporting their camper, Buddies play a really important role in fulfilling that mission.

One of my favorite memories as a Buddy last summer came during our talent show held at overnight camp. Many campers look forward to the talent show all year and practice their talent throughout the week. My cabin of eight campers had prepared a choreographed dance to an upbeat song. However, one of my Buddies was very shy and did not always want to participate in the dancing. When it came time for us to go backstage, she lost her nerve and refused to budge from her seat. I was so worried she was going to miss out on the experience. With my consistent encouragement, though, she finally smiled and stood up. Once she made it backstage with all of her friends, she got into the excitement of it all. When she set foot on stage, she smiled, enjoyed herself, and even waved at the audience!

This is such a treasured memory for me because it embodies so many of the things ESP strives to provide for our campers. The talent show gives our campers the opportunity to express themselves and be encouraged by their peers. It also provides a way for campers to connect with each other when practicing and performing. The talent show is one of many special moments of pride where individuals of all abilities are engaging, connecting, and thriving. Seeing the friends with whom I was building strong summer relationships flourishing on stage was truly inspiring. Their disabilities were not seen, just their abilities. The moment reminded me that I was put in the Buddy position for that very reason.

These transformative summer camp experiences provide campers with ways to connect with their Buddies, changing both lives for the better. Being an ESP Buddy gives me the chance to make a difference in an individual's life. They are certainly making a difference in mine.

Anna Carter is a year-round ESP Buddy and volunteer, participating in summer camp and ESP's after-school program, which is full of interactive class that teach participants life skills through activities such as outdoor education, swimming, cooking, art, and community building. Learn more about ESP at extraspecialpeople.com. 

 Photo courtesy of Extra Special People, Athens, Georgia.