Over the course of five days, Build America, a program created through the philanthropy of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, worked on various construction projects around the camp for people with disabilities and also took the time to create bonds with campers that will not soon be forgotten.

A group of 17 young men set foot on the grounds of Camp Wonderland in Rocky Mount the evening of June 26. 

They came from different backgrounds and different parts of the country, but with one common purpose. Over the course of five days, Build America, a program created through the philanthropy of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, worked on various construction projects around the camp for people with disabilities and also took the time to create bonds with campers that will not soon be forgotten. 

Camp Wonderland Director Mark Sigel is certainly glad to have the group and other organizations around to take the time to not only improve the amenities, but the experience of the estimated 1,100 campers that spend time there this summer.

“With groups like Build America it is a big deal for us,” Sigel noted. “We are run 100 percent on private donations so when groups like this come in, not only do they donate their time and energy, but also give us financial backing.”

Sigel said groups like these simply do things for the camp that could not be accomplished alone.

“Our two facilities guys managing the 30 buildings and 320 acres don’t always have time to build new projects so groups like this really help the camp grow and have new things for our campers to do year after year. We love having groups like this to make the camp more beautiful for our campers and at the end of the day that is really what counts.” 

The Build America program originated about 13 years ago and every summer a group spends six weeks at various summer camps for people with disabilities around the country, making the amenities and recreation more accessible. Each member raised a minimum of $4,000 for travel expenses and provides each camp with a $5,000 grant for all the materials needed to come in and do the labor. According to the program’s website, the team will log over 4,000 man hours while saving camps and communities $50,000 in labor costs and over $30,000 in material expenses. This is the third year the group has come to Camp Wonderland. 

Crew Chief Ryker Belnap, a native of Idaho and architecture major at the University of Idaho, said he drew his inspiration to do this kind of work from his experience working on an all-accessible playground project during high school. Once he heard about the program, he did not hesitate to sign up. 

“I thought this was awesome because this was another opportunity I could use those construction skills in a way that really gave back to the community and particularly a community I am passionate about,” Belnap stated. “So I served last year on the Build America team as a team member and I loved it so much I ended up coming back in the position of Crew Chief. I’ve always had a very strong place in my heart for people with disabilities that includes friends and family members so just being able to take that opportunity and truly serve other people has been really awesome. ” 

Project Manager Derek Torres, a native of New Jersey and recent graduate of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. Having a strong supporting cast growing up, he wants to give back and assist others as much as possible to make their lives easier in any way possible. 

“My family never gave up on me and did everything they could,” Torres remarked. “I believe this philanthropy has had a huge impact on my life and now that I can support myself and do everything doctors said I couldn’t do, I want to give back as much as I can just to simply say thank you for everything they have done.” 

Each day the group wakes up at 7:30 a.m. and works until noon. After lunch they get back to work until 4:30 and after dinner their evenings are spent doing a number of activities with campers. During their time at Camp Wonderland, the group has rebuilt part of a nature trail, repainted a pavilion, built new shelves for storage, painted a mural and created a variety of carnival games. Many members of the group come with little to no construction experience, but have learned quickly in the first two weeks of their trip. Belnap said the weather conditions could be a little better, but the group has not skipped a beat. 

“I don’t know why anybody lives in Missouri during the summer because it is gross and the humidity takes some getting used to,” he said laughingly. “I think the experience has been really great and it is cool to see so many people on our team, people who have never picked up a drill or hammer before, really get into it. We had just a little bit of training and so much of it has been on the site learning. Everyone is really eager to work, pick things up and learn those new skills and I think we just get more efficient everyday.” 

What essentially began as a group of strangers has quickly turned into a brotherhood, and Torres is certainly looking forward to the work yet to be done over the next four weeks at camps across the country. 

“It really is amazing,” he noted. “Within a few days we were all incredibly close with each other and I had never seen that happen before. We got to know each other really well and I think that is what helps us work even harder and better together.” 

Although the group has begun to form strong bonds amongst each other working on construction projects, perhaps their most cherished memories will be of the time spent with campers. 

“The really cool opportunity that sticks out with us way more than the construction is the fact that we get to hang out with campers and we have our cabins that we start to get attached to,” Belnap said. “We know all these campers by name, their personalities and what they like to do. The unique thing about Build America is that you get to spend five days at each camp instead of just a few hours on a service visit so you really get to know them and make these very strong friendships that last. Nobody plans on crying when you leave camp, but man does it sneak up on you.” 

Torres said the group is not taking any of these days this summer for granted. 

“It may seem like six weeks goes on forever, but in the blink of an eye we are going to be done,” he said.  “We are incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to spend six weeks with different campers around the country. A lot of us don’t take this for granted and we cherish every single day as if it were our last. It is going to be an incredible feeling at the end of the summer.” 

Once this summer event comes to an end, both Torres and Belnap plan on making various places and amenities accessible wherever they may be in their respective careers. They both strongly encourage others to take advantage of the opportunity to serve others. 

“Don’t be afraid to take the challenge and take on any of those opportunities,” Torres said. “When you are fearless that way, you have a whole new world of opportunities waiting for you and this has opened many doors for me. You come back a different person and it really teaches you about leadership. If you are looking to become a leader this is the perfect opportunity to do so.” 

Camp Wonderland has been around since 1969, but the effort given by Build America over five days and the efforts of other various organizations to improve the experience of the camp are timeless.