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Camp provides all-day fun for mentally challenged campers

Camp provides all-day fun for mentally challenged campers

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Camp provides all-day fun for mentally challenged campers

July 28, 2005    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0338} 

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

LEESBURG — While some campers float effortlessly underneath the early morning sun in the pool at the Warren W. Willis Camp, others prepare to enter the chilly water, squealing with delight.

It's a scene that is repeated several times throughout the day by hundreds of campers, but on this day it's different because these campers are mentally challenged adults attending Camp Pioneer.

Camp Pioneer is operated under the Florida Conference Health and Wholeness Ministry umbrella and has been occurring for two weeks each year at the camp since 1989. It runs during the nine weeks that the conference's summer camps for children and youth take place.

LEESBURG — Camper Marc DeVito (left) and his buddy, Tim Turner, take a break from tossing a ball in the pool at Warren W. Willis Camp here. Photo by J.A. Buchholz, Photo #05-216.

This year's sessions were held July 11-15 and 18-22. They offered 44 mentally challenged adults the chance to experience camp and all the activities you'd find at other summer camps — swimming, making crafts, folk dancing, putting on skits, going to Bible study, participating in worship. It's just what they need to feel included, as well as wanted, according to organizers.

One thing that's different about Pioneer Camp is its "buddies" — adult chaperones assigned to accompany campers throughout the day's activities. Each camper has a buddy who swims with the camper in the pool, helps with craft projects, attends worship or walks with his or her camper from one event to the next.

Brenda Carter, a member of Jennings United Methodist Church in Jennings, is a buddy and has been since almost the very first year of Camp Pioneer. She became a buddy at the urging of her pastor's wife and says she hasn't regretted one single moment of her time as a buddy.

"I never could do a mission trip out of the country, but my pastor made me look at it like this is my mission," said Carter, who has played the church's piano for 48 years. "I just love it. I love how God reveals himself to the campers."

Campers like Angela Yeager. She says she enjoys performing underwater handstands.

For Christine Selkegg it's the arts and crafts. "I like to work on crafts and make sand art," she said as she meticulously worked on an art project with Fuze beads.

Selkegg has attended camp for a few years and said she looks forward to returning each year. "I like to see old friends and meet new people."

The Rev. Pearl Boles of Orange Park United Methodist Church near Jacksonville is one of those old friends. She began working with the camp in 2000 and this year served as chaplain during one of the weeks. She said the Rev. Bob Standifer introduced her to the special camp in the early 1990s.
Bole said she enjoys Camp Pioneer because of its small and intimate setting and the opportunity it offers her to relate to people others might not.

"I think other people might not see or appreciate the gifts these people have for the Kingdom," said Boles, who spent a week working with the campers to dramatize the story of Noah's Ark. "It's a blessing to work with these people. They are so accepting and loving. They don't recognize your shortcomings, and if they do, they are accepting. I just thank the Lord for the opportunity to serve here."

Jim McGregor, a member of First United Methodist Church in Port Orange, is also thankful for the opportunity to serve. He has been a buddy for four years.

McGregor said he understands many people only receive two weeks of vacation each year and it would be difficult to give up one of those weeks to help at the camp, but he has no doubt it's time well spent.

"You've got to try it," said McGregor, who is a buddy to three male campers because there is a lack of male volunteers. "It's not for everybody, but maybe people could come and try it out for one day and see what it's like. I look forward to coming, even though it's getting harder and harder to squeeze (it) in my schedule."

LEESBURG — Buddy Gerry Weeks (left) assists camper Angela Yeager as she prepares a serving of dirt cake, made with chocolate pudding, cookies and gummy worms. Weeks, a buddy for one day, said she has been involved with the program for about four years. “The campers are dear, and it’s wonderful to be a part of it,” she said. Photo by J.A. Buchholz, Photo #05-217.

Sarah Smithey, a member of Pioneer Methodist Church in Sanford, wouldn't dream of not finding time for the camp. She has been a buddy for six years.

Smithey, who has worked with mentally challenged people in the past, said she enjoys the Christian aspect of the camp and the opportunity to see God in others.

"You don't think about yourself," she said. "It's about seeing the campers enjoy themselves. They get so excited about the arts and crafts. There is just a unique experience here. You realize you're all in it together. The campers have fun, and you have fun."

Suzy Ramos knows all about fun. A camper for several years, she enjoys time in the pool and making dirt cake out of pudding, cookies and gummy worms. "It is fun here," she said between activities. "I like it a lot."

Buddy Tim Turner also likes his time at camp. The 18-year-old is one of the camp's few male buddies. The member of Orange Park United Methodist Church said he receives as much as he gives to the campers.

Holding all of the campers, buddies and activities together is Sarah-Beth Priest, the camp's director. A former buddy of 10 years, Priest took the helm as director in 2000.

"It's like from the first day I was born to do this," said Priest, who is constantly multi-tasking throughout the day. "This is my passion."

It is also her life's work. Priest teaches mentally challenged students at Deltona High School.

Priest said she has never had to recruit campers, that word of mouth does all the work for her. She said the one area where she has been campaigning is getting more men to sign on as buddies. Campers are only allowed to attend if there are enough buddies, so having fewer buddies means fewer campers can attend.

"Our biggest need is for male buddies," she said. "I have a lot of respect for the people who take a week of their time to come here."

This year's campers made their way through the Camp Pioneer experience with the assistance of 19 buddies.

Two of the most important traits in buddies are compassion and patience, according to Priest. She said the camp is all about the buddies giving of themselves to the campers.

"It warms my heart to see the buddies and campers together," she said. "You have to have a serving heart. It's all about the campers."

It may seem like a hard job to manage the camp, but Priest says she loves what she does.

"I get more out of it than the campers," she said. "It's not for everybody, and that's fine. I just want people to try it. You won't be the same when you leave. These are special people, and it's worth it to spend time with them."

For more information contact Priest at


This article relates to Outreach and Discipleship.

*Parham managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.