Fraternity brothers assist campers with disabilities

Union Leader Correspondent
July 06. 2014 10:07PM
Jeremy Edward prepares a drill while working on a sensory garden project at Camp Allen in Bedford. Members of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity built the garden and completed other maintenance project during a visit from June 29 to July 3. (JULIE HANSON/Union Leader Correspondent)

BEDFORD — Camp Allen executive director Mary Constance wasn’t sure what to expect when she heard the members of Pi Kappa Phi were coming to build a sensory garden for her campers, but she was pleasantly surprised.

“They’re very good young men,” Constance said. “We’re just tickled to have them here.”

The members are part of the Build America program run by Push America, the national philanthropy of Pi Kappa Phi. The stop at Camp Allen was part of a summer-long journey by the 16-member team. Along the way they will complete construction projects at six camps dedicated to people with disables from Boston to Atlanta.

Constance was thrilled to find a service-oriented group focused on the population at Camp Allen, which serves people with developmental and physical challenges. The fraternity brothers arrived ready to work, but still managed to connect with the campers almost immediately, she said.

After spending long days working, the men spend their evenings sharing meals with campers and attending their various programs, Constance said.

“These guys have just blown me away and exceeded every expectation that I had,” Constance said.

Constance has dreamed of creating a sensory garden at Camp Allen for about seven years. It was then that a camper with severe autism took refuge from the noise and activity at the camp in a small garden area where counselors would read or sing to him.

“When he sat in that garden he was a different person,” Constance said.

He would rejoin the other campers able tolerate the chaos of a campground. Constance envisioned a larger sanctuary that would stimulate all the senses and meet the special needs of any camper.

The garden includes a running stream of water, a path of varying textures and raised flower beds with easy access for wheelchairs. A small tool shed was built on the site. In addition to the garden, members of the Build America team cleared an overrun nature trail, put up some fences and sanded and painted the stage used for evening programs.

The fraternity brothers said they gained more from their experiences with Build America than they could ever hope to get.

Dylan Devlin recently graduated with a degree in hotel and restaurant management. He saw the Build America program as his last chance to focus completely on giving back before entering the professional world.

He said he has gained greater awareness by living the service-based lifestyle traveling from camp to camp.

“It’s about creating something for people you may realistically never see again just to know that it’s theirs,” Devlin said.

David Strata said he joined Build America because he wanted to do something really different with his summer and saw the program as the best challenge to take on. As they drove into camp he read “discovering abilities since 1931” on the sign and immediately liked the Camp Allen approach.

Complete immersion in the camp experience and the relationships developed will remain with him, Strata said.

“I’m going to enjoy every single minute of every single day of these next few weeks,” Strata said.

Rett Abner ll said working with children and adults who have disabilities has always been on his radar. He spends time with his sister who has disabilities, Abner said, but daily immersion in their environment and culture is an entirely new experience.

He’s proud to be part of an organization focused on leadership and enhancing the lives of people with disabilities, Abner said.

“The values of Push America and Pi Kappa Phi is what will carry us throughout our lives,” Abner said.

Some of the fraternity members had previous experience working with people with disabilities, but not on a consistent basis like they do on the trip, said Nick Julian.

“It’s really great to experience the whole community dynamic,” Julian said.

After witnessing their struggles and interactions with counselors and others, Julian said it comes down to meeting people, seeing what they can be, and treating them as people should be treated.

“This isn’t about disabilities,” Julian said. “It’s about what people can do and their strengths and making the most use out of your time, your gifts, and your life.”

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