A bond is building between Charlottesville firefighters and children in a summer camp that honors the memory of a mother and daughter found dead inside a burning home last year.
Investigators say Robin and Mani Aldridge were murdered before a suspect set their Rugby Avenue house on fire. This week, children with special needs are taking part in Robin and Mani's All Buddy Camp, which honors their memory.
Robin Aldridge taught some of the children in her special needs classroom, while several of their “big buddies” were Mani's classmates at Charlottesville High School (CHS).
Wednesday, the summer camp took a field trip to the Charlottesville Fire Department (CFD). Firefighters gave the campers a tour to see the engines and learn fire safety.
"We just want them to know that firefighters are their friends, and we're here to support them and be here for them," said CFD Battalion Chief Rich Jones.
Firefighter Jourdan Arnold showed campers how they gear up to respond to a blaze. It's a scene that played out in December, when Charlottesville fire crews rushed to the burning home of Robin and Mani Aldridge, and found them inside.
“The connection between these firefighters and this buddy camp is very emotional for all of the staff, certainly, and I think the firefighters, too,” said Sarah Blech with Charlottesville Parks & Rec.
“I'm glad we got to see the firetrucks and the firemen. I bet it's just as healing for them as it is for us,” said CHS student Claire LeBlond.
LeBlond was classmates with Mani at CHS. “I went to elementary school with her all the way up through high school,” she said.
The high school student is now a camp volunteer "big buddy", paired with 5-year-old Addy.
“Addy's my soul sister.” LeBlond said.
Big buddy Patrick O'Shea hopes the camp turns the tragic loss of Robin and Mani into a positive legacy.
“I think it's a very good thing for the community, because they don't really have a lot of opportunities for disabled children,” O'Shea said.
“The little ones, they're just so sweet. They're into it. They love it,” said Carmen Gray, a friend of Mani.
Gray created the artwork on the camp T-shirt for Mani. She believes her best friend is living on through these new buddies. “Oh, Mani, I can only imagine the things she would say. She'd probably be so happy, excited,” Gray said.
The campers took home red "junior firefighter" helmets from Wednesday's field trip.
The big buddies say they're already seeing the little campers overcome their disabilities and become creative, expressive friends.
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