Illinois hunting and fishing

Teacher assistant Donna Dykstra (left) and Camp Big Sky volunteer Gary Davis of Middle Grove share a laugh after Robert A. Jamieson School student Nikki puckers up for a bluegill during a recent fishing trip.

A place for firsts

May 30, 2010 at 01:57 AM

Camp Big Sky

Camp Big Sky is open to campers with developmental, physical, cognitive, sensory or age-related disabilities on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from May through the end of October.

Volunteers are also welcome to help at the camp.

To learn more, visit campbigsky.org or call (309) 258-6002.

Hearing Brad Guidi talk about the excitement of Camp Big Sky is one thing.

His comment, “We get a lot of firsts out here,” draws polite nods.

But when you see those firsts happen firsthand, that’s another matter entirely.

I’ve watched a lot of fish dangle on hooks. None moved me as much as the bluegill caught earlier this month by Timothy, a special needs student from Peoria’s Robert A. Jamieson School.

As we walked out onto a floating dock on Bruce’s Lake, one of two lakes at Camp Big Sky, Timothy squealed any time the dock jiggled.

“Oh my God, I’m right by the water,” he said halting more than once. Each time, Timothy shuffled on with a frightened but determined look. For that he was eventually rewarded with a bluegill.

“Now I can tell my mom I got my very first fish,” said 19-year-old Timothy (pictured below), beaming and flashing a thumbs-up sign to his schoolmates.

Illinois hunting and fishing

Hearing that and seeing the look on his face made me understand why folks like Gary Davis of Middle Grove and many others volunteer to help at the camp.
It made me understand what Guidi meant when he described a recent Camp Big Sky charity tournament that paired local anglers with special needs kids.

“We had some pretty big guys pretty choked up by the end of the day,” Guidi said.

That’s because outdoors activities we take for granted are not automatic for all youngsters — particularly those in wheelchairs or who have other disabilities.

Giving those kids a chance to get outside is the point of this unique 102-acre piece of Fulton County strip-mine ground. The idea is to bring special needs children and adults to a place where they can catch fish, ride in a boat, fly a kite, enjoy a campfire, hike or just enjoy being outside.

Guidi heads up the non-profit group, but for him it’s more than a job. His daughter has cerebral palsy and his brother Bruce suffered from developmental disabilities before dying at age 11.

Maybe that’s why Guidi is so good at selling his camp to donors, the long list of which includes Illinois Mutual, Home Depot of Peoria, South Side Bank and the Old Timer’s Baseball Association.

“It just amazes me how well the Peoria area responds even in bad times,” Guidi said.

All those donations have made it possible to provide bathrooms, docks, swings, tables, pavilions and walkways designed with wheelchairs in mind. Last
year all those donations helped attract more than 2,000 campers and family members from 16 counties.

That’s a far cry from the 111 campers who visited in 2006, but Guidi has plans for more. During my visit he helped finish a new cabin and mapped out plans for a 40-by-50-foot steel building that will allow campers to pursue indoor activities on rainy days.

While that’s a good idea, it wasn’t necessary for the 17 students from Jamieson School who fished through persistent rain. “They didn’t mind (the rain) at all,” said Karen Orendorff, principal at Jamieson. “They had goals of catching fish no matter what.”

The Jamieson students were the first from District 150 to make the drive to Camp Big Sky, which is located south of Middle Grove.

The remote location is a drawback for some and distance is one reason Orendorff had been reluctant to visit.

“But even the short amount of time we had out there was worth it,” she said. “They just had a superb time doing something they had never done.”

Jamieson student Nikki even took a page from Jimmy Houston’s fishing book and puckered up to kiss one of her bluegill. Still nobody left Camp Big Sky happier than Timothy.

“He told me afterwards that was the best day of his life,” Orendorff said.