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Just more than 45 years ago, Bill Robertson had set a plan in motion.
On March 2, 1969, Jaycees from across Virginia were going to go door-to-door and sell apple jelly for $1 a jar to raise funds for a new camp to serve special needs children.
Robertson had spent the days prior to the sale date visiting the 140 Jaycee chapters throughout the state mobilizing support for the plan. Some 100,000 jars had been ordered; the Virginia Jaycees were ready to hit the streets.
But on March 1, one of the largest snowstorms in recent memory hit the commonwealth and the Jaycees started asking Robertson what to do. His answer was simple, “start knocking on doors.”
And knock they did; and the orders for the apple jelly flooded in.
It seems the snowstorm had been a God-send; everyone had stayed home because of the snow and the Jaycees who braved the more than foot of snow that had fallen to visit their neighbors found a captive audience.
“God had looked down and smiled on the project,” Robertson said Saturday at the Founder’s Day celebration at Camp Virginia Jaycee.
In all, the Jaycees raised $68,000 to start the camp, well over the original goal of $45,000.
The camp has been serving special needs children ever since. And selling jelly to help fund scholarships for campers.
Robertson, who now lives in Tampa, Fla., has been watching over the camp throughout its history here in Bedford County. It was his dream, after joining the Roanoke Jaycee chapter in 1966 as its first African-American member.
“I was looking for a challenge,” Robertson said. And he told the group he would take responsibility for that project.
Robertson began by learning as much as he could about special needs children and how to help them. He learned they were missing out on experiences other children got to have—specifically the camp experience.
“I felt they should have the same opportunity as everyone else,” Robertson said of providing a camp for special needs children. “The Jaycees adopted the project.”
In 1971, a search committee identified the land in the western portion of Bedford County that could serve as the location for the camp. At that time only a house was on the property; the Jaycees have built everything else that campers who go there now enjoy.
“We have served more than 45,000 individuals with special needs,” Robertson said.
Special education teachers from Kenya, South Africa and other countries have visited the camp and taken the idea back to their countries to start their own facilities.
“We’re looking forward to the next 45 years (of the camp),” Robertson said.
Robertson, who has a resume full of service at the national level, returns to Virginia several times a year to check in on the camp. He started out as a teacher and later served in administration within the Roanoke school system. His success with this effort put him on a path to public service serving Virginia Governor Linwood Holton as the first African-American Assistant to the governor in charge of minority and consumer affairs. He then went on to serve on President Nixon’s Committee on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Head of the Peace Corps in Kenya and the Seychelles for President Ford and for President Reagan in the Defense Department and later as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.
But Robertson is clear about what service he values most.
“The greatest thing I have ever done is to be a part of Camp Virginia Jaycee,” he said. “I consider these to be holy grounds.”
Robertson said 3 percent of the population has special needs. “They cannot be put in a corner and be told to stay there,” he said. “Their potential and capabilities need to be developed.”
As that goal is fulfilled, Robertson said “we make our local community, our commonwealth, our country a better place.”
The camp provides a variety of opportunities, including a residential summer camp, respite weekend camps and a family camp.
The 90 acres are filled with many camping activities including swimming, arts and crafts, horseback riding, boating and fishing, sports, music, hayrides, dances and scavenger hunts—just to name a few.
While the emphasis is on enjoyment and recreation for campers, they also are taught self-help skills for their daily living habits. Many of the campers are sponsored by Jaycee chapters from throughout Virginia.
Jackie Julien serves as the current president of the Virginia Jaycees. She said the camp is the major effort for the Jaycees. “It’s a large part of our history,” Julien said. “The camp is here and it’s still serving Virginia citizens. The Virginia Jaycees plan to continue to serve the camp.”
For more information on the camp call 540-947-2972 or visit www.campvajc.org.