A Place Called Hope

by Leslie Conrad

Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you
If you're young at heart.
For it's hard, you will find, to be narrow of mind
If you're young at heart.
You can go to extremes with impossible schemes
You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams
And life gets exciting with each passing day
And love is either in your heart or on it's way
Don't you know that it's worth every treasure on earth
To be young at heart?

— "Young at Heart" Words and Music by Carolyn Leight and Johnny Richards Recorded by Frank Sinatra, 1954

The scene is similar to opening day at summer camps everywhere. Two hours before check-in begins, a line forms at the front gate. Campers have been anticipating this day since December, their bags packed for weeks. As the cars and vans line up, familiar greetings are shouted as camp friends are recognized and the anticipation of driving up the camp road has become almost too much to bear. At a closer glance, an innocent bystander will quickly notice, however, that these are adults . . . grown men and women excited about summer camp! At our camp, we have the privilege of serving the young and the young at heart. Campers of all ages with various abilities come for what we hope is the best week of their lives.

Located on Lake Hartwell, in beautiful upstate South Carolina, the Clemson University Outdoor Laboratory is home to several residential summer camps. Some campers have special needs that are evident — a physical or mental disability such as a hearing or visual impairment, developmental delays, or speech impairment. Others have special needs that are simply common to their age or their circumstances. Most of our campers have limited choices, if any, about where to attend camp because of a specific disability, financial constraints, or because of age. So we strive to make our camp one they would choose, if they had the choice of any camp in the world!

Jaycee Camp Hope is residential, and we offer one or two week sessions. A unique aspect of our program is that we have campers who are adults with various types of developmental disabilities. They cannot age out of our camp — and some of them have been coming for thirty years! Camp Hope continues to be a highlight for them and offers them unique opportunities they are not able to get other places.

The program is both typical and similar to many around the country. Our campers participate in activities like canoeing, crafts, archery, overnight camping, swimming, nature, and drama — to name a few. Our staff works and lives at camp, serving as counselors and activity instructors. Approximately seventy-two campers attend each session, and we hire thirty staff.

The Challenges

As camp directors, we all appreciate having those ongoing relationships with our campers — watching them grow up and knowing them for many years. Since there is not an age limit at our camp, some campers keep returning for many, many years. The most common reason campers stop coming to camp is because the activity level becomes too much for them as they get older. The walking, the hills, the heat . . . all become challenges for them later in life (like all of us). So it is hard on them, on us, and on the rest of the campers when certain campers are not able to come to camp anymore. We experience a similar emotion as we do when we have friends or family who are met by the challenges of getting older.

Another challenge is being able to serve a limited number of campers. Since our campers do not age out of the program, we are limited each summer to the spaces we have available for new campers. It can be a good thing to always have a camper waiting list, yet we know what an incredible opportunity we have — and it is hard to turn folks away. Not only do the campers benefit from the camp experience, the families and caregivers are able to have respite from the responsibilities of caring for an adult child with special needs.

Our Community

The ACA Values state: "We help children develop self-esteem, character, courage, responsibility, resourcefulness, and cooperation. Quality camp experiences help children develop the healthy emotional and social skills necessary to grow into strong, considerate, competent adults."

Our adult campers benefit from this value of the camp experience. Our programs give them opportunities to make decisions, to live in a group, and to try new things. We work on independence and social skills with our campers through camp activities and relationships with other campers and staff. They are able to grow in positive ways through their camp experience, which benefits the adult camper as well as family members and caregivers.

At the Outdoor Laboratory, we have another program which runs concurrently with Camp Hope. Camp Sertoma serves children (ages seven to thirteen) who are either underprivileged or have a speech or hearing impairment. Since the two camps share our site and activity areas, there are many opportunities for interaction. Having opportunities to help the adult campers enables our kids to have a sense of worth and importance. This makes quite an impression on them and also teaches them about people with disabilities.

During the week, we have an evening program when groups from each camp are paired together for the activities. Counselors work with their campers to choose a buddy, someone from the other camp with whom they participate and enjoy the program. Because of the vast difference between the two sets of campers, the relationships formed rarely go beyond the camp session. However, giving our children and adults the opportunities to work with and help individuals who are different from them is a valuable lesson. We see adult campers enjoying the kids' energy and enthusiasm. We see the kids enjoying time spent with an adult, and regardless of ability, it is someone older than they are that wants to be their friend.

Our mostly college-age staff are faced with caring for individuals that are oftentimes old enough to be their parents or grandparents. This requires a selfless attitude and a compassionate, caring heart. As our counselors and activity leaders work with and interact with our campers, they learn and grow in many of the same ways as staff working in camps with children.

A Special Gift

Our adult campers have a special gift. They are childlike, a gift which enables them to be joyful, playful, loving, and real. The camp experience is ideal for them because they enjoy the freedom to be themselves. As with all campers everywhere, they enter a "magical" place where the pretenses of life seem to disappear.

We can act and be silly without people looking at us funny, which is very different from most places. Our adult campers, however, have made this true for themselves every day — not just at camp. We have a great deal to learn from them.

Leslie Conrad is on the faculty of Clemson University in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management. She is currently the assistant camp director at the university's Outdoor Laboratory and has worked with their special needs campers for fifteen years.

Originally published in the 2006 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.