By Rachel Hauben

As we approach the end of the summer, the Brad Schoener MusicMan Academy looks back fondly on the past two weeks of the Butterfly Buddy program, an adaptive creative arts camp for children with special needs. Paired with a high school or college “buddy” who has been trained ahead of time for the specific needs of each student, campers engage with music, the arts, and themselves. Jennifer Schoener, the Upper Darby Arts & Education Foundation Director of Creative Educational Programs and Founder of the Brad Schoener MusicMan Academy, remarks “The Butterfly Buddy educational philosophy is that every kid deserves a chance to be creative and find their own inner self, whatever that looks like.” 

The first week-long session of camp took place at Primos Elementary School in the afternoons of July 25th-29th for students in grades 6-8. This group of campers loved to dance, so dance parties were a common occurrence. In one such party, a student requested the Ghostbusters theme song, while another asked for “Mother Knows Best” from Tangled. The campers danced and sang along with the songs, laughing with one another and their buddies. Dancing together brought campers closer to one another, their buddies, and everyone at camp.

During this first session, campers created butterfly mosaics, painted pieces of paper in the shape of butterflies, and made colorful drums to take home. They were also encouraged to go around to one another’s artwork and leave post-it notes with compliments for their fellow campers to bring home. Every day, camp began and ended with a sweet “hello” and “goodbye” song in which each camper would be greeted and said “goodbye” to in turn. These songs were calming for the campers, staff, and guests, who were amazed at how happy the children were. Mike Zabel, one of two state legislators who visited the camp, said, “I think the Butterfly Buddy camp is an invaluable and unique camp. It’s incredible to see the joy on these campers’ faces and to see them flourishing in such a caring and welcoming environment.”

The mother of a new Butterfly Buddy camper said, “This is my daughter’s first time at camp. She enjoyed the arts and playing in the park, and really loved having a camp buddy. This was the first program that she has taken part in for the whole time it was going on. As a parent, it’s just so amazing to have found a program my daughter wants to be a part of. She was excited to come back for the next day of camp even before the first day had ended. The only thing she wanted more of was more days of camp.”

The guardian of a returning Butterfly Buddy camper remarked, “My great-granddaughter has had a wonderful week. She was here last year and when I told her she was coming back this summer, she was so excited. She loves it here. She’s not too verbal but you can tell when she’s happy, and Butterfly Buddy camp makes her very happy.” 

The second session of camp took place once again at Primos Elementary School, but this time it was held in the mornings of August 1st-5th for students in grades 2-5. Middle school campers from the first session were also invited to come back as “super-buddies,” mentoring the younger campers and passing on the lessons they had learned in the previous week. Students decorated drums, painted with brushes made of spaghetti, made rain sticks, pallet drums, and lava lamps, and added more painted butterflies to the wall mural. 

State Senator Timothy Kearney and State Representative Mike Zabel with Jen Schoener during their visit to Butterfly Buddy camp.

A personal care assistant of one of the younger campers said, “Butterfly Buddy is a great camp that helps the kids with their independence, social skills, and learning how to make their own decisions. The staff here are amazing. The kids all love the music aspect, and have a ton of fun with the yoga balls. I’ve seen a major improvement in my client during his time here at camp. He loves his buddy, Dylan, and has been having an incredible time. The kids have been able to express themselves through their creativity here, and they’re having so much fun doing it.”

The small size of the program and the highly specialized staff allowed the Butterfly Buddy team to adapt the learning environment to the needs and wishes of the students. As Jen Schoener puts it, “There is always a good outline for the week, but we make sure to go at the kids’ pace. It’s all about making sure they are comfortable and having as much fun as possible.” The comfort of the campers was always a top concern in the structure of the program, and everything from the instruments to the sensory-friendly toys to the cushiony chairs was taken into account. Even the ukuleles were fitted with chord finders for the C, F, G, and D chords to make it easier for the campers to play together. 

On the last day of camp for both sessions, parents and families came in to join the fun. They watched a video of the week’s activities, saw their children’s artwork, and played along with the songs the campers had learned throughout the week, the most special of which was a song that campers had written their own lyrics for. This helped them to exercise their creativity, learn how to work with one another to create a larger product, and make a special song that they could all share. At the end of the day, parents and families got to participate in the closing parachute movement activity and sing the goodbye song as a memorable closing to an incredible week of camp.

The mother of two Butterfly Buddy campers spoke about her children’s experiences at camp, “They both had a great time. My son was worried about coming at first but ended up having a wonderful time. He liked the movement and art activities, and loved dancing with the scarves. My daughter loved helping out as a super-buddy. The staff was great at  letting her join [the second] week… Now she’s talking about wanting to come for both weeks next year as both a camper and a helper which is amazing. My son has learned how to feel more comfortable with advocating for himself. We know how great the music program through Upper Darby is, so having the program extended even further for our kids at this age has been amazing.”

This program is organized through a unique partnership of the MusicMan Academy of the Brad Schoener Memorial Fund, and the Royal Butterfly Special Needs Fund, which supports special needs students and families in the Upper Darby School District. The entire MusicMan Academy operates under the Upper Darby Arts and Education Foundation, and Butterfly Buddy camp is additionally funded by a grant from the Department of Education. State Senator Timothy Kearney, an instrumental partner in securing this grant, says, “Coming to Butterfly Buddy camp is my favorite event of the summer. We’re happy to help with part of the funding for this incredible camp and hope to continue to do so in the future.”

The Butterfly Buddy theme song:

You’ve got a friend in me

At MusicMan Academy

There’s music and art and movement too

Lots of fun things that we can do

And a Butterfly Buddy to see you through

You’ve got a friend in me

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