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Special-needs camps build confidence


7:00 A.M. EST August 12, 2010

Participants and counselors in the Spina Bifida Week sessions ham it up for the camera at Camp Aldersgate, Little Rock, Ark. Photos courtesy of Camp Aldersgate.
Participants and counselors in the Spina Bifida Week sessions ham it up for the camera at Camp Aldersgate, Little Rock, Ark. Photos courtesy of Camp Aldersgate.

First-time camper Grant Alley, 13, had the adventure of a lifetime this summer.

A year ago, camp seemed a dream for Grant, who is autistic. Social interaction is a constant hurdle.

But this year, Grant went to Kota Camp at Camp Aldersgate in Little Rock, Ark. His sister Kristin, 15, was a volunteer. “Kota” is the Quapaw Native American word for “friend.” Campers with special needs can bring along a non-disabled sibling or friend to ease the transition into camp.

“As a mother of an autistic son,” Grant’s mom, Tina, said, “sending him off to camp for the first time was a daunting experience. The short drive to camp was probably more stressful for me than for Grant.”

Her concerns were put to rest the very first night by a short text message from her daughter. The text read, “Mom, Grant is having a blast. He is dancing and holding the flag and seems really happy.”

For nearly 40 years, the United Methodist-related Camp Aldersgate has reached out to children and youth who — like Grant — might never attend camp like their siblings and peers.

The camp’s programs for kids with medical conditions began in 1971. Allergist Dr. Kelsey Caplinger asked if the camp would host a weeklong summer camp for 12 kids with asthma. It was a success, and the camp soon began offering other weeks for kids with other medical conditions.

“Our campers wake up bright and early to get to a flag ceremony at 8 a.m., which is immediately followed by breakfast,” said Sarah C. Wacaster, the camp’s executive director.

They spend most of the day participating in traditional camp activities that include canoeing, art, fishing, swimming, archery and a rope course. There’s only a brief break for blood-sugar checks and medication. Every night, the camp has a special program for the youngsters such as a carnival, pool party, dance or talent show. The day concludes with devotional time followed by lights out at 10 p.m.

Camp Aldersgate is not alone in providing unforgettable camping experiences for those with special needs. Across the United Methodist connection, children and youth like Grant pack duffle bags and medical equipment for day and overnight camps tailored to their needs.

‘Can-do’ attitude is the key

These special-needs camps focus on what campers can do — not what their medical condition dictates they cannot do.

In Sullivan, Wis., 41 acres of woods, fields and trails at the Christian Disciple Farm beckon kids and their families to a combination day camp and vacation Bible school. A team from United Methodist-affiliated North Central College leads story, discovery, recreation and ministry time slots.

During the weeklong camp, 110 campers — about 60 with disabilities — learn and play together. Each child with special needs is paired with a full-time “buddy.”

Grant Alley (right) draws a Quapaw tribe bead from Daniel Carnahan during opening campfire ceremonies.
Grant Alley (right) draws a Quapaw tribe bead from Daniel Carnahan during opening campfire ceremonies.
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“Siblings are invited to participate in the camp,” noted Sue Rheingans, who runs the camp with her husband, Ken. “We have separate groups for the parents or grandparents as well.”

One of the Rheingans’ two sons—Jason, now 21— was born with hydrocephalus and later diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The family has hosted the day camps on their farm for eight years.

Most of the volunteers stay at a local park during the week. “Families with children with special needs are also invited to stay at the park,” Rheingans said. “Some of them love to stay there because their kids fit in.”

Several camps across the United States blend deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing children and youth. Extreme Youth Camp in the South Central Jurisdiction is open to hearing and non-hearing kids. And in Maryland, Deaf Camps Inc. has a roster of camps for deaf children alongside camps for hearing children who learn American Sign Language through lessons and shared activities with deaf peers. United Methodist Bishop Peggy Johnson founded the camp 16 years ago.

You don’t have to be a kid to look forward to camp, according to Becky Holten, executive director of Circle of Friends camps in the Dakotas Annual (regional) Conference.

“Many of the persons who attend our camps are high school age and older,” she said, “even into their 50s and 60s.” The conference has camps at three sites. Holten hopes to expand the program to include school-age children and those “diagnosed on the autism continuum.”

‘Zero-reject camp’

Boosting self-confidence is a staple of HEROES, an outreach of First United Methodist Church, Richardson, Texas.

Josh Schilling’s 14-year-old has multiple disabilities. Five years ago, Schilling and another parent sought a place for a weeklong trial of recreational and leisure activities. “There was nothing for people with the most significant needs,” he said. So they started HEROES (Helping Everyone Reach Outstanding Educational Success) with just five campers.

Today the “zero-reject camp” serves children and youth with any and all medical and behavioral disabilities, said Schilling, now the day-camp director. About 75 kids attend each of the six weeks of camp.

Each group travels off campus once a week to eat at a restaurant or go to a recreational and leisure activity to promote skills in real-life applications. In the community, older campers volunteer at a plant nursery, an animal shelter and a food pantry. The oldest campers have job mini-internships at a grocery, a hardware store and a pharmacy.

Doctors and nurses are on staff or on call at all of the special-needs camps. The Minnesota Conference goes a step further by offering integration specialists that enable campers with special needs to share the camp experience with campers who don’t face daily medical challenges.

“The goal,” said integration specialist Randy Janssen, “is to generate a safe, positive and supportive atmosphere.”

He recalled one special-needs camper whose only wish was to fish.

“The integration specialist, the other campers and the counselor respected his need and desire to fish,” Janssen said. “He caught fish. That got him to go along with all the rest of the summer camp activities.”

Another camper cried as his parents drove away. Campers and staff worked together to make sure he had a safe week, Janssen said.

“The ‘aha’ moment,” Janssen said, “came as we were in the van driving to the horse ranch, and I started to sing, ‘There was a big, old moose who liked to drink of lot of juice.’ He knew the song and started to sing along. He was comfortable. He realized he was strong enough and confident enough to be at camp.”

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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