Day camp is tailor-made for disabled youth

Camp Ability, the only program of its kind in Harford County, offers educational summer fun.

SUMMER In Harford County

July 24, 2005|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The campers at Camp Ability - who use wheelchairs, walk with braces or crutches and cope with maladies that limit their activities - won't rough it in the woods, climb mountains or go canoeing.

But the more than 100 participants in the Harford County Parks and Recreation summer camp for people with disabilities have plenty of other opportunities for outdoor activities and fun.

"The most important aspect of this camp is that the children are in a situation where they're constantly learning and reinforcing what they learned during the school year as opposed to getting the summer off," said Paul Yanney, chief of parks and recreation. But, he added, "This camp is not intended as an educational environment. It's meant to be fun."

The camp was founded in the mid-1970s by Rod Ewing, then-principal of John Archer School, which at the time was the county's only public special-education school. Although the county had a number of camps at that time, parents at John Archer were interested in a camp that could offer a specially tailored program.

Since its inception, the camp has filled. Because of high demand and repeat campers there's a waiting list. Once admitted to the camp - which includes campers ages 3 to 21 - many attend until they exceed the age limits.

"I've seen many kids grow up in this camp," said Yanney.

Yanney said the camp operates on a budget of more than $100,000, funded with state and county assistance as well as the activity fee.

Aaron Rosenkrans, director of the camp, said that 90 percent of their campers are students at John Archer with disabilities ranging from mild autism to Down syndrome. For $350, the camp offers a six-week daily program, with activities from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Rosenkrans attributes the popularity of the camp to the activities and staff.

"We adapt the activities to their level," said Rosenkrans, a teacher at Riverside Elementary School in Joppatowne. "We make sure they keep active all day long. They have physical education, crafts and field trips. ... We develop a bond with them. This makes them feel comfortable and adds to the enjoyment of the program."

Keeling Harrison, assistant camp director, gave an example of the connection she enjoys with one camper, 19-year-old Toria Collier, who comes to the main office every Friday for her reward for good behavior.

"We put whipped cream on our faces and shave it off with a spoon," said Harrison. "We've done this for years. She knows this is coming at the end of the week, and we have such a great time doing it."

Rosenkrans said it takes time to build this type of rapport.

"We often get kids who come to the camp for the first time and they don't participate," said Rosenkrans. "Our greatest successes are when we are able to pull these kids out of their shell and get them excited."

Toria, a veteran camper, said the camp is her favorite place in the summer.

"I love coming here. We have fun shaving our faces. Today we are making pirate hats with scary flags," she said, growling and making claws with her hands. "It's fun."

Another camper, Brandon Russell, 14, said it's definitely fun, but that the day wears him out.

"I like doing gym class here," said Brandon. "They take me out of the wheelchair and make me work. By the end of the day, I'm so tired. When I go home, I need a break. So I play on my GameCube."

Yanney said the camp also offers benefits to the parents.

"Camp Ability gives parents a much-needed break," said Yanney. "Some of these kids are very demanding. Some have to be fed and diapered, and they have needs that we have to accommodate."

Rosenkrans said the hardest part of making the camp a success is adapting the program to meet the needs of the campers.

"It's really hard to adapt the programs in the beginning," said Rosenkrans. "We have to find ways to make every activity work for every camper, and sometimes that's very hard."

So they have to be selective on who works with the campers. Yanney said all potential instructors go through an interview process and many of them start as volunteers.

Newcomer Brandie Parker, an elementary education major at Towson University, said the interview almost scared her away from the job.

"When I first came and interviewed I wasn't sure if this was the right place for me," said Parker. "They tell you exactly what it's going to be like, and they're right. You have to feed grown kids and diaper them and help them in the bathroom. Some kids have harnesses and seizures. You have to repeat yourself a zillion times and help them a lot. I just wasn't sure if this was the place for me."

Parker quickly overcame her jitters.

"When I first arrived, there was one girl that had a horrible first day," said Parker. "I thought, `Oh boy, she and I are going to go around and around this year.' But now she hugs me every day, and she shows me what she's working on and she listens to me. When I feel like I'm making a difference, it makes me feel better."

Annette Hernandez, the mother of a camper, said she's been sold on the program from the start. After years of volunteering, she's now a camp teacher.

"I love this camp," said Hernandez. "It keeps him working on the stuff he learned in school this year. I know he's at a safe place and it gives me a chance to be more actively involved in what my child is doing. It's just a great place for these kids."

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