Saturday, July 2, 2011

Camp Buddy bridges the gap between school years


Brenna Heape’s tiny 7-year-old frame balanced atop two scooter boards as she glided across the floor, pushing and pulling a rope. After a few successful reps her face lit up, and she knew that she’d done well.

As Heape completed the set of therapy during the “motor labs” portion Camp Buddy, her smile was contagious, caught by occupational therapist Melinda Hawkins. Hawkins was holding one end of the rope and encouraging Heape through the exercise, and the two shared a few excited high fives when they finished.

Camp Buddy ended Thursday, after three days last week and three this week at the First Baptist Church of Springfield. The camp, sponsored by the Lowcountry Down Syndrome Society, offers a therapy-based curriculum designed especially for children with Down syndrome.

“It’s amazing,” said Molly Marchese, a founding member of LDSS and proud mother of Ella, 5, who has Down syndrome. “You watch them do something that they couldn’t do last year, and you work hard on it, and then they come back to camp and they’re doing it. So it’s really gratifying for the therapists to see their hard work pay off and for the parents.”

This is the third year that Camp Buddy has been available locally. The camp is intended to bridge the gap between school years so that these children can retain what they’ve learned in school and prepare for the next year.

Marchese said that the camp is also a way to offer essential physical, speech and occupational therapy to children whose parents may not be able to afford such specialized treatment, especially in adverse economic times.

Yet, Ella and the rest of the children continue to make strides. Wednesday morning, Marchese couldn’t contain her emotions at the thought of her husband, Joe, seeing their daughter ride her bike for the first time, a skill she conquered at camp.

“I can’t wait for him to see her ride her bike,” she said. “He’s going to be floored. But you take it for granted, you know; you think all kids know how to ride a bike.… You’re so proud of them. You love all your children; you’re so proud of all of their accomplishments, but to watch them reach a milestone, it’s just overwhelming this joy. They bring so much joy in to your life. To watch them realize they’re accomplishing something, it’s awesome, as a mom.”

Each day the children follow a regimen of therapy with special education teachers, therapists and volunteers. They work their fine, oral and large motor skills while having fun, singing along to music, working on the computer and riding bicycles, something new this year. They practice counting, reading and writing through programs designed specifically for people with delayed learning.

“They can do all of these things,” said Marchese. “It just takes a little extra effort, a little extra work, a little extra patience and time, but they can do the same things that their typical peers can do.”

The LDSS was founded in 2006 by Candy and John Bogardus, who have a 6-year-old daughter, Lainey, with Down syndrome. Candy Bogardus said that she and her husband went looking for a local support system and found the closest groups in Jacksonville and Atlanta.

In addition to Camp Buddy, which accommodates Effingham and Chatham counties, the group provides new parent packets for new parents of children with Down syndrome with information about the genetic chromosomal disease and early intervention therapy.

“When Kristen (Fears) was born, I didn’t know anything about Down syndrome,” LDSS member Wendy Fears said of her daughter. “What you did know was all negative things.”

Fears said that her mother never thought Kristen would be able to read, and that through early intervention and therapy, Kristen is able to play ball and dance at recitals like other children. She said that the expectations of this generation are far beyond those with Down syndrome before them.

“Their quality of life is going to be phenomenal because of things like (Camp Buddy),” said Marchese. “They’re going to be productive members of the community and they already are.”
The group also sponsors a Night of Champions award banquet, honoring businesses that employ people with disabilities and those employees.

“Our whole goal with that is to recognize that these people are making a difference,” said Bogardus, also secretary of LDSS, “and we invite other businesses to show them how they could become a part of that difference.”

Marchese said that the LDSS, while still only able to offer Camp Buddy to school age children, hopes that as the Buddy Walk grows, more people will offer to run camps for teenagers and adults with Down syndrome, catering to those needs.

Bogardus said: “We just want to, at this stage, help (our children) to be as successful as possible as they get older and to realize that they don’t have to place any limits on themselves. By doing that, we help the community to not want to place limits on them, because that’s another goal of ours is the community awareness that our children are just children and people with Down syndrome are just people.”

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