SAN DIEGO — Whispering Winds Catholic Camp is looking for a few good “Buddies.”
Located in the mountains outside the town of Julian, Whispering Winds will be hosting its eighth annual Special Needs Family Camp from July 24-26.
The program is an adaptation of its traditional Summer Family Camp, which has been offered since 1993. The Special Needs Family Camp is specifically designed for families that include a child or even an adult with developmental challenges, such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or epilepsy.
As a unique feature of the program, campers with special needs are paired one-on-one with their own “Special Needs Buddy,” a volunteer who accompanies them throughout the weekend.
“The purpose of Family Camp is to welcome families of all ages and stages to a peaceful place where they can enjoy quality time together while having fun and growing in their faith,” said Paula Bott, director of marketing and programs at Whispering Winds. “We had a strong desire to remove the barrier that prevented many families with special-needs children from attending camp together. We wanted to foster whole-family togetherness.”
Betty Britschgi, who reviews the applications of families who sign up for the camp as well as those applying to be “Buddies,” said the Buddies are “essential to the success” of the program.
“We always work very hard to recruit enough Buddies,” said Britschgi, who reaches out each year to parishes, campus ministry groups and young adult communities. “We don’t have any trouble filling the camp with families,” but at times “it’s a little bit of a slow-go” when it comes to signing up Buddies.
Yet being a Buddy isn’t as challenging as one might expect. Buddies must be at least 18 years old and attend a training session led by Whispering Winds staff prior to the weekend. This year, that training will take place from 5-9 p.m., Tuesday, July 14, in the social center at St. Therese Parish in Del Cerro (6049 Camino Rico, San Diego 92120).
Potential Buddies complete an online application, which is reviewed by Britschgi, who then interviews each applicant and prepares a profile of each Buddy in order to best match them with special-needs campers. Background checks are performed annually for new and returning Buddies, just as they are for all of the camp’s staff members and volunteers.
“No prior experience with children or adults with special needs is required,” said Britschgi, “just an open heart, helping hands, a desire and willingness to walk side-by-side with a very special camper for a fun-filled weekend.”
Hannah Lewis, a young adult who has been serving as a Buddy since the very first Special Needs Family Camp in the summer of 2013, agrees.
“As long as you have a good heart, you’ll be set,” she said, adding that Buddies are not left unsupported and that she “never felt alone up there.”
Lewis, who told The Southern Cross that she is “absolutely” returning as a Buddy this July, described the Special Needs Family Camp as one of the highlights of her summers.
“The experience, for me, was very illuminating,” she said, “and I just loved getting to know the kiddo … and just trying to show them the best time that they could have.”
On average, about 34 families attend the Special Needs Family Camp, Britschgi said. The sizes of those families vary, she explained, noting that the camp has welcomed families with as many as eight members.
Campers with special needs have ranged in age from 4 to 60. Each is assigned a Buddy, and they are divided into age groups for the various activities.
The theme for all this year’s Family Camps, including the one for families with special needs, is “Special Agent … For the One True God!” The scheduled activities include escape rooms for families to solve together, said Bott.
The Special Needs Family Camp begins at 1 p.m. on Friday and concludes at 5 p.m. on Sunday.
During the morning, there are three separate tracks: one for children with special needs accompanied by their Buddies; another for siblings of the special-needs campers; and a third for parents, who attend faith-filled talks followed by opportunities for group discussion, while their children engage in fun activities, like swimming, crafts and rock-climbing.
Bott said the time that the parents spend together is another unique feature of the Special Needs Family Camp.
“The parents create bonds with other parents who are going through the same life circumstances,” she said. “Through sharing and socializing, these adults provide support and encouragement to each other, allowing them to make valuable connections and develop vital support systems, all centering around faith.”
After lunch, the families are reunited to spend their time together as they choose. In the evenings, all of the camp participants come together for a common activity, like a campfire or a dance.
Dave and Claudia Ayala, members of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Chula Vista, have been attending the Special Needs Family Camp with their children annually since its inaugural year, only missing one summer during that time. Their 23-year-old son, Joshua, has a rare genetic disorder called Au-Kline syndrome, of which he is one of only 27 diagnosed cases.
“Some may say, well, it’s just a summer camp,” said Claudia Ayala. “That is where they would be wrong. Our special children are carefully paired up with the most amazing Buddies. … Whether you believe in God or not, you will definitely feel His love and His healing” through all those who make the annual camp a reality.
Ayala’s husband, Dave, had this message for anyone entertaining the thought of being a Buddy: “This camp is so much more than a weekend. It is a life-changing experience, a few days that you will remember your whole life. It is okay not to know how to care for someone with special needs; I didn’t.”
“I challenge you to see what we see in other special-needs kids,” he added. “My wish is that you become a part of it all, as we would be honored to meet you.”
For more information about the Special Needs Family Camp or about volunteering as a Special Needs Buddy, visit www.whisperingwinds.org or contact Betty Britschgi at email@example.com.