Summer camp for kids with disabilities

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, August 29th. Thanks for listening to WORLD Radio today. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a visit to a special summer camp. 

Each summer, millions of kids around the world attend summer camps. If you were one of them, then no doubt, you have memories of campfires, long afternoons swimming, probably a few camp pranks and for many of us, learning about Jesus.

EICHER: But for kids with physical or cognitive disabilities, going to summer camp isn’t all that easy. Activities may not be accessible and camps often don’t have enough staff.

But a growing number of Christian camps are working to change that. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg takes us to one of them in Canada, in the province of Alberta.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: It’s Monday morning at Camp Rehoboth. The sun is shining and the large lawn in the center of the camp is freshly cut. A bell signals the official start to the day. 

AUDIO: [Sound of campers and counselors] 

Campers mosey out of the cafeteria and cabins and into the chapel building. They’re dressed in shorts, t-shirts and baseball caps. Camp director Kevin Debree meets them at the door. 

DIRECTOR: What do you need Evan?
CAMPER: Can I, can I play the drums this morning for the music?
DIRECTOR: Yeah, I told Michael it’s your turn today. 
DIRECTOR: Just not too loud. (laughs) 

The two dozen campers sit in pews next to their individual counselor. The camp has a one-to-one camper-to-staff ratio. 

After Evan takes his place on the stage behind the drum set, the music begins. And as they are able, everyone stands.

AUDIO: [SINGING] – LYRIC: Alive, alive, alive forever more. My Jesus is alive, alive forevermore. My Jesus is alive. Sing hallelujah, sing hallelujah, my Jesus is alive. 

After singing, Kevin Debree brings out a special friend. It’s a raccoon puppet named Rocky. Debree uses Rocky to let the campers know if they’re anxious about being away from family, it’s OK. 

CAMPERS: Hi, Rocky!
DIRECTOR: Rocky, do you think you can come out and say hi to our new friends? How many of you are here at camp for the very very first time. See Rocky, have a look! Look how many of your friends are here for the first time. 

Debree says it makes him happy to see half of the hands go up. That means word is spreading about the social and skill-building experience camp can provide for children with disabilities. 

DEBREE: They do come from all over Alberta. Various backgrounds, some Christian homes and some, this may be the first time that they’ve ever heard about Jesus, so it’s a really neat opportunity. We want to provide them with a true summer camp experience….

Providing one-on-one attention for each camper takes takes a lot of volunteers. They allow campers to participate in activities specifically designed for them.

After chapel, it’s time for morning rec. The counselors coat campers in sunscreen and divide them into groups. They rotate through activities like bean bag toss, an egg race and basketball with a lowered hoop. At one station, campers play mini bowling…with plastic pins and a light ball. 

AUDIO: [Sound of hitting bowling pins]

19-year-old Annelieke Pols was once a camper here. Now she’s an assistant to the counselors. She has a degenerative muscle disease. 

POLS: I’ve been in a wheelchair since I was like 11 or 12.

Pols says growing up being able to go to a camp specifically designed for people like her made her forget she was different. 

POLS: Physically, I can’t really do much stuff but here you feel that you can do whatever you can just set your mind to. You feel closer to God during chapel and whatnot. And campfire singalongs are always fun too. And I don’t know, even like with crafts you still like talk about God during that, too. 

Like all tweens and teens, sometimes these campers also have a mind of their own. One doesn’t want to participate in the games. She keeps wandering off. 

COUNSELOR: Hey Amber, where did our team go? 

Counselor Adrienne VanBostelen says being put in a new environment can be exhausting and jarring for some first-time campers. It’s important to give them space to find a new rhythm. 

VANBOSTELEN: So we just kind of try to redirect, but we usually don’t push it too much. It’s tough on the counselors because they really want to bond and they really want their camper to have fun and they think if they’re not participating then they’re not having fun, but they’re just testing.

This is Lindsey Stavtjesdyk’s fifth year counseling at Camp Rehoboth. Before camp, she still gets intimidated when she learns about her camper’s specific disability. But once camp starts, those nerves quickly fade. 

STAVTJESDKY: Once you meet them and you see what they’re like, then it’s just so much easier. It just really does change your perspective on people with disabilities. They really are a person behind the disability and they’re just like everybody else. 

Camp also involves field trips to the nearest town to spend the afternoon at an indoor swimming pool.

Depending on their confidence level, some campers wear floaties or life jackets. Some hold on to the side of the pool. One camper with limited verbal ability squeals with delight as her counselor lowers her into the water. 

COUNSELOR: Hi! Coming swimming? 

Another camper/counselor pair practice the perfect cannonball—while a teenage boy counselor repeats a crowd pleaser: jumping off a rope swing, Tarzan style. 

AUDIO: [Sound of Tarzan yell]  

One 18-year-old camper this year is Michaela. 

MICHAELA: Camp is really good so far and it seems to be all a lot of fun. Seeing my friends and my new friends here. I’m just really happy.

She doesn’t want to swim today. She sits at a table by the pool drawing with Sharpie markers on a canvas bag. She’s been coming to camp for several years now. She says what she loves most about camp is it’s given her a bigger family. 

MICHAELA: I love God and Jesus is my favorite, and that’s my other family up in heaven, actually.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Lacombe, Alberta, Canada.

(Photo/Camp Rehoboth)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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