Reed wants to play Rock Paper Scissors with Britteny Guffey. With developmental disabilities, the 9-year-old’s speech is a bit hard to understand, but Guffey knows exactly what he’s saying.
“I don’t know,” she tells him, “you beat me every time.”
Eventually she gives in and, yes, he beats her, much to his delight.
Guffey, who’ll be a senior in psychology in fall semester at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is a Big Buddy, a student majoring in psychology working this summer as a counselor in the weeklong Friends Discovery Camps at the Creative Discovery Museum or the Chattanooga Youth and Family Development Department’s Camp ZooAbility.
In each, the campers are developmental disabled. Some have mental impairments. Some have physical issues. Some are autistic.
“It can be demanding but it’s also rewarding,” said Guffey, who wants to be a school psychologist.
In early June, Guffey is working as a Big Buddy during a Friends Discovery Camp for 6- to 10-year-olds. One of the days includes a tripe to Warner Park Pool.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself, about the kids and how to attend to that child and their individual specific needs,” says Guffey explained. “It gets me closer to where I want to be on a personal level and a professional level. I want to be able to help all students, the ones without disabilities or with disabilities.”
Sean is throwing himself forward in the Warner Park pool, flopping onto his stomach with big splashes. He does it over and over. Around and around the pool.
“Is this the best time you’ve ever had in your life?” asks Allyson Thompson, program manager and inclusion educator for the Creative Discovery Museum, as she follows him.
Sean doesn’t say anything. He just keeps splashing.
Jayne Griffin, director of education at the Creative Discovery Museum, said Big Buddies’ participation is crucial to the camps.
“I cannot say enough good things about Big Buddies. I cannot,” she said. “For us, we look at it as supporting these students, who then support our children.”
Getting campers to work and play with each other is the major goal of the camps, Griffin said.
“The engagement piece is huge and it’s tricky,” she said. “It’s a fine art to do that and not hover, but to be supportive because the goal is to get the kids to engage with each other.”
The one-on-one attention campers receive would not be possible without the Big Buddies, said Thompson, who graduated from UTC in 2004 with a degree in children and family services.
“Most of these children don’t get to get a typical camps. We couldn’t do this camp without the students,” she said.
For students, working in the camps fulfills out-of-classroom training, a requirement for psychology majors.
“We decided that we wanted more hands-on experience, and we really wanted them to work together as a team, and a classroom doesn’t always fit that mold,” said Elaine Adams, therapeutic recreation coordinator for the city of Chattanooga and an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychology UTC.
Big Buddies are students in her courses who commit to a minimum of two weeks of work at either the museum’s or the city’s summer camp, Adams explained.
A total of six weeks of camps are held in the summer, and students can volunteer for all six if they want, she said. For every two weeks worked, they receive three hours academic credit.
“The assumption is that, if you sign up for the course, you were also going to do the camp,” Adams said.
“It’s not cold once you get in it.”
“That’s my booty. Don’t touch that.”
Conversations can be heard this way and that as campers romp in the Warner Park Pool. Some play water basketball. Some, like Sean, just fling themselves around and splash. Some aren’t sure they want to get in at all.
“They just need that one-on-one time,” said Mariah Lyles, who’ll be a senior in psychology at UTC in fall semester.
“I think that helps them a lot better than in a big classroom. They just need more time to understand.”
Conor McGowan, who’ll also be a senior in psychology in the fall, said working with the kids is “just kind of learning that every child is different.”
“Everyone always says that, but you never really fully grasp it and understand it until you get to experience being around other children,” said McGowan, who wants to pursue a career in pediatric therapy.
“You can always read a book. You can always learn something. But you can’t always be around different kids. You get to see them do their own thing and learn from them.”