BRAD GUIDI ’71 has known he wanted to make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities since he was 14, when his younger brother Bruce died from complications due to severe developmental disabilities. Guidi continued to be touched by those with disabilities — in addition to his brother, his grandfather spent the last 15 years of his life in a wheelchair because of a mining accident, and Guidi and his wife, WILLA WOODSON GUIDI ’72, have a 26-year-old daughter, Dominique, confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy and developmental disabilities.
Guidi’s chance came in 1995 when his family bought a 102-acre tract of strip mine land about 30 miles west of Peoria near Farmington, with the idea of turning it into an accessible camp and fishing site. Guidi wanted to create “a place where people with all sorts of disabilities could have the same access to the outdoors that many of us take for granted.”
Marj Guidi, DR. LEE NEWTON ’94, Kay McCord, BRAD GUIDI ’71, KATIE HOGAN ’99, and Todd Guidi pause in front of the camp’s accessible tent.
Campers enjoy a cruise on a wheelchair-accessible pontoon boat on Bruce’s Lake.
Michelle fishes from her wheelchair, waiting for a bite.
All services at Camp Big Sky are free, including bait, fishing poles, grills and gas, and accessible picnic tables. Campers only need to bring food. They can relax in the pavilion on Marj-El Lake, roast marshmallows in the fire pit, or play games like bocce ball on a Special Olympics regulation-size court.
Since Camp Big Sky’s incorporation in 2000, a cabin, picnic pavilions, a floating dock, and wheelchair-accessible trails have been built. A pontoon boat was specially built to allow wheelchair users to operate it themselves.
DR. LEE NEWTON ’94, assistant professor of English and president of the camp’s board of directors, says Camp Big Sky is unique because campers are encouraged to bring friends and family. While the camp is not a residential camp, facilities are available for campers to stay the night.
Several alums are involved with the camp. Guidi’s daughter TASHA GUIDI GUTH ’00 volunteers at the camp. KATIE HOGAN ’99 serves as board secretary, MIKE GRANE ’72 MBA ’76 is the organization’s treasurer, and SANDY KOSTOUROS ’00 MBA ’03 chairs the camp's marketing committee. Mike McCord, CEO of Illinois Mutual Insurance and a Bradley trustee, has provided much assistance for Camp Big Sky. McCord’s wife Kay; Guidi’s mother Marj, a co-landowner; and his brother Todd are on the camp’s board, as well.
Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity regularly volunteers for Camp Big Sky. Members have done physical labor at the camp, and they hold a fund-raising event every year. JOHN FELBINGER ’08, Sig Ep president, finds fulfillment in volunteering with his fraternity brothers. “Our members gain a sense of community and self-gratification knowing that they are donating their time and efforts to such a beneficial organization.”
The camp, in its fifth year of operation, continues to expand every year. In 2006, 111 campers visited; in 2007, that number rose to 448. Last summer, kite flying and nature study were added to the list of available programs. The camp is also adding an “arts and crafts in nature” program. Guidi says they are currently looking into adding therapeutic equestrian activities. “Our board is very, very safety conscious,” says Guidi, “so we always make sure when we do something that it’s going to be safe and secure, as well as fun.”
A popular activity for many campers is nature watching. The camp has binoculars for viewing wildlife and telescopes for campers who want to view the night sky.
“The outdoors, I would argue, is the last venue that hasn’t been made accessible to those in wheelchairs or those with disabilities,” says Newton. “Campers love the fields, catching their first fish, seeing the turtles, the herons, and the geese; it’s really exciting for them.”
While a growing number of children visit Camp Big Sky, young adults comprise the largest group of users. Nursing homes also bring residents for a day of fishing or for a moonlight cruise on the lake.
Guidi recalls a 102-year-old camper who caught a 50-pound snapping turtle three times in the same day. “We had six cane poles in the water, and he kept going back to her pole. And this is a huge turtle. After the third time I said, ‘Well, you have naming rights,’ and she named him Hungry George. That’s his name to this day. He still lives under the dock.”
Guidi jokes with campers, “We have a tradition here. To make sure everybody else catches a fish, you have to kiss the first fish you catch.” Some are ready and willing, others shy away, but they all have fun.
Camp Big Sky is operated by Why Not Now? Inc., and the Guidis lease the land to the camp at no charge. The camp is open Wednesday to Saturday from the first week of April to the last weekend in October. For more information, visit campbigsky.org or call 309-258-6002.