Buddy Day has become an annual tradition for students in Immokalee, a much-anticipated reward for second graders in Guadalupe Center’s After-school Tutoring & Summer Enrichment Program.
Each spring for nearly three decades, more than 100 students have boarded buses bound for Marco Island, where they pair up with adult volunteers for a day of outdoor learning and fun as they explore Southwest Florida’s unique coastal habitat. Pairs of buddies participate in environmental workshops, arts and crafts, outdoor games, and other learning activities.
The 29th Annual Buddy Day, however, looked different. Because of the pandemic, Buddy Day transitioned to a virtual event. Guadalupe Center staff didn’t want this to be just another Zoom session, so extra thought went into developing the 2021 Buddy Day program.
Just like in previous years, there would be a fire truck, park rangers and outdoor games, and not just for one afternoon, either. Buddy Day became Buddy Week to allow for social distancing.
Representatives from Big Cypress National Preserve typically lead students through a birding expedition, pointing out various species prevalent on Marco Island. Instead, rangers created a series of birding videos that children watched before heading outside of their classrooms to explore. Big Cypress even provided handmade binoculars from toilet paper rolls. One highlight was the Birding Olympics in which rangers acted like birds to demonstrate how they fly and explain migratory patterns.
“They couldn’t smell it, feel it or touch it, but hopefully we were still able to give them a valuable experience through the videos,” said Lisa Andrews, Big Cypress’ outreach and education coordinator.
Firefighters from the Immokalee Fire Control District led students through a fire safety program and demonstrated equipment.
“I liked the fire truck because we got to pull the cord to make the alarm,” said Eulalia Juan Alonzo.
Guadalupe Center’s After-school Program serves Immokalee students in kindergarten, first and second grades in need of additional reading and math instruction. Their hard work pays off as 100 percent of students in the program demonstrate reading and math gains on standardized tests.
In prior years, big buddies traveled from more than a half-dozen residential communities in Naples and Marco Island. Oftentimes, big buddies were just as excited as little buddies leading up to Buddy Day.
“We knew that we needed to explore other ways to give some semblance of Buddy Day to keep the tradition going,” said Hideaway Beach Club resident Mark Ryan, who along with his wife, Linda, have helped organize Buddy Day for many years. “Buddy Day is a way to reward the children for the efforts they put in. We were not going to let COVID stop Buddy Day.”
Hideaway’s food and beverage department donated snacks for the children, while other supporters provided books, and arts and crafts. Kids 2 Camp furnished stuffed animals. Another Hideaway resident packaged everything into goody bags for the students.
After enjoying Buddy Day, Ricardo Hernandez had a simple message for everyone involved in creating Buddy Day activities.
“Thank you for everything that you did for the week,” he said.
About the Author: Bob Spano is Vice President of Programs at Guadalupe Center in Immokalee.