2011 Eleanor Eells Award Winners: Leaders in Program Excellence

From biking programs to therapeutic camping programs, the 2011 Eleanor Eells Award winners certainly lived up to the criteria of “program excellence.” ACA interviewed the directors at each award-winning program and asked them to share how they have developed creative ways to reach deserving campers — promoting the positive contribution camp makes to the well-being of individuals and the world.

Bradford Woods

Martinsville, Indiana

Bradford Woods, the Outdoor Center of Indiana University, established its therapeutic camping program in 1955 in partnership with the Riley Hospital for Children. This partnership continues today along with other local nonprofits, resulting in approximately 1,000 youth and adult participants in residential summer and weekend camps. Camp programming is based on a therapeutic community model that provides campers with a disability-specific camp experience that enhances social acceptance, quality of life, and self-esteem. Campers, in turn, are able to participate in traditional camp activities with others that have similar life circumstances. Adapted water skiing, adapted scuba diving, horseback riding, wheelchair basketball, sit volleyball, 4xkids jeep day, accessible high and low ropes courses, traditional campouts, art conducted by an art therapy student, music facilitated by a music therapy student, and leadership activities are offered annually.

How are campers impacted by the opportunity to participate in traditional camp activities with other campers who have similar life circumstances?

Director Shay Dawson, MA, CTRS: Campers participating with their peers who have the same or similar medical diagnosis provides a unique annual opportunity for the campers to truly feel normal and free without physical or social barriers. Although we fully support inclusive practices, our research and practical experiences have told us that this medically specific camp model fosters a supportive therapeutic environment that is very unique. For many of our campers, this is the only time all year that they can feel “just like everyone else.” As a result, we see a high level of social acceptance, improved quality of life, and improved self-esteem.

We believe that the language of a child is play and that the medically specific camp experience provides an informal and safe context to discuss how medical issues impact their lives. Most of our campers may be the only child in school with cancer or using a wheelchair, so this is truly the only time they can feel like everyone else understands them. It is much like a support group designed for kids. Except we don’t sit around in a circle and talk about feelings, we sit around the campfire and talk about feelings. The most promising research findings recently have shown us that the impact lasts beyond closing campfire in that campers have increased levels of social acceptance and quality of life six months post-camp.

What is the importance of having “challenge days” at Bradford Woods, where campers complete self-determined challenges?

Dawson: These days offer an opportunity on the last day before camp ends for the campers to choose a set of challenges that they would like to overcome. This may include climbing up “Cardiac Hill” by wheeling, crawling, or getting out of their wheelchairs and walking up this steep hill. It could also be climbing to a certain height on the universally designed climbing tower. For others, it may be swimming across the lake or making a speech in front of a group.

The challenges are presented to the campers and they choose what they want to accomplish rather than what others want them to succeed at. This is all done within the context of doing your personal best and that failure only revolves around not giving it your all rather than reaching a certain point of measurement. With that said, for some campers, it is helpful for them to have the “dignity of risk” involved with failure because failure has been proven to help children develop in a healthy manner. If in the correct context, a tough challenge can really push a kid to do things they didn’t think were possible, which is oftentimes surprising to them.

The goals build each year for returners and help increase positive feelings of self-efficacy over time. This hopefully leads to a willingness to take on greater challenges later in life like going to college, traveling, and living independently. So challenge day is really a practical metaphor for life.

Children’s Association for Maximum Potential (CAMP)

Center Point, Texas

For thirty-three years, Camp CAMP (Children’s Association for Maximum Potential) has provided programs and opportunities for its CAMPers with special needs and their families that they are often unable to experience anywhere else. This includes opportunities for siblings without special needs to participate in CAMP’s programs, and opportunities for parents and other caregivers to receive much needed respite. CAMP offers many of the traditional activities one would expect at any other camp, but they are adapted to make them safe and accessible to all CAMPers. Camp CAMP follows the “challenge by choice” philosophy, and ultimately strives to make everyone feel comfortable trying new things and reaching toward their own maximum potential with a sense of community and support.

What is the impact of a shared camp experience between a child with special needs and his or her sibling who does not have special needs?

Director Brandon Briery, PhD: Oftentimes siblings of children with special needs find themselves in caregiving roles, or at minimum, having to make sacrifices with respect to activities they would like to participate in, due to the needs of their brother or sister with special needs. Perhaps somewhat remarkably, the majority of these siblings we see at CAMP demonstrate few signs of jealousy or resentment; rather, they are protective of their brothers or sisters with special needs and are happy to make sacrifices for them.

Still, we believe that these siblings need to have opportunities where they get to feel special, where they are relieved of their caregiving duties, and where they are challenged on their own level, rather than always coming down to the lowest common denominator of what their brothers or sisters are able to do. With this in mind, CAMP provides special programming for the sibling CAMPers that is unique to them, while also offering opportunities for participation in all-CAMP activities and at most meals with their siblings. This mix seems to provide just the right balance of providing some independence and new challenges for the siblings, while at the same time allowing them to maintain their connectedness with — and oftentimes protectiveness of — their brothers and sisters. Siblings are afforded that special gift of seeing their brothers and sisters engaging in activities — and engaging with others who have similar challenges — and to truly witness them “fitting in” and excelling!

Another unique aspect of Camp CAMP is that it trains and mentors more than 500 teenage volunteers and 300 healthcare volunteers each year. Why is this aspect of Camp CAMP so important?

Briery: While our identified CAMPer population is individuals with special needs, CAMP’s mission extends far beyond strengthening and inspiring them alone. It extends to “those who care for them,” which not only includes our CAMPer families, but also our counselor volunteers and healthcare volunteers as well.

Our teenage volunteer program is a youth development program in and of itself. Teens aged fourteen and older receive a weeklong training, and then are matched 1:1 with a CAMPer buddy for one or more weekly CAMP sessions in the summer. Through their training and experiences in working with individuals who have special needs in this unique environment, they are (as a few examples): gaining perspective regarding the challenges others may face — and the relative blessings they themselves often enjoy; gaining leadership skills that can be applied both at CAMP and outside of CAMP; gaining career development skills that may help them in myriad ways as they grow into their future careers — many times through mentoring provided by healthcare volunteers; and gaining an understanding of, and sensitivity to, issues that individuals with special needs face — often leading to becoming advocates for those with special needs in the world outside of CAMP.

Our healthcare volunteers come from diverse health and allied health professions and settings. Many, even those who have been working in their respective fields for twenty years or more, often tell us that at CAMP, they have the opportunity to learn about, work with, and — perhaps most importantly — get to know individuals who face certain challenges whom they had previously only read about in textbooks or heard about in lectures. These healthcare volunteers, through their training and experiences at CAMP, are (as a few examples): gaining a better understanding of individuals with various special needs, and the importance of CAMP in their lives; gaining career development skills that may help them in myriad ways as they continue to grow in their careers — even for those who are more seasoned professionals; mentoring the next generation by sharing their career insights with the teenage volunteers who are serving alongside them; and, like the teenage volunteers, gaining a deeper understanding of, and sensitivity to, issues faced by individuals with special needs, and using that to better advocate for these individuals in the healthcare community and the world at large.

Mostly, our teenage volunteers and healthcare volunteers become a part of a community that is centered on dignity and respect for those with special needs, and that strives to offer opportunities to all who are part of that community that often are not available in any other academic, professional, or community setting. By helping bring all of these individuals together as part of the CAMP community, and then sending them back out into the world at large, we believe we are building a better world one CAMPer, one counselor, and one healthcare professional at a time!

Dennen Week at Camp O-AT-KA

Sebago, Maine

Each summer, approximately 150 deserving boys from Maine, ages nine to sixteen, come to the Camp O-AT-KA site on Lake Sebago to experience the benefits of residential camping during Dennen Week. This “no tuition” camp opportunity is given to boys in the southern Maine area who have been nominated by their school guidance counselors and who would not otherwise be able to attend a residential summer camp because of the cost. Returning Dennen Week campers within the eligible grade range (going into grades six through ten) are invited to apply directly to experience this special week at camp again. The goal of Dennen Week is for the boys to have fun, make friends, learn to work as a team, have the opportunity to learn leadership skills, and go home with a feeling of achievement and accomplishment.

Is there any special programming during Dennen Week?

Director Joe Wannemacher: We try to make Dennen Week as much as possible like the three- and four-week sessions at Camp O-AT-KA. The differences are dictated by staffing and time. Some projects, such as stained glass and pottery, take more than a week to complete any project in which the boys can take pride, so we choose to focus on other activities. For other activities — woodworking for example — we can do a little more preparation before the boys arrive so that they can complete a project within the week.

Also, Dennen Week activities are scheduled by cabin rather than by individual camper — so the boys participate as a group or team with their cabin mates and cabin staff throughout the week. They are exposed to activities in which they might not previously have had any interest. Inevitably, some boys excel in one or more of these new activities. By the end of the week, the boys have been given the chance to recognize in each other their unique strengths.

What do campers learn from their camp experience that they could not learn anywhere else?

Wannemacher: The boys spend a week eating, sleeping, playing, and working as a team with two counselors and six to eight cabin mates — strangers of the same grade level. They make new friends and, with the example and guidance of counselors, learn a degree of tolerance that probably would not happen at home.

We have activities they probably don’t have the opportunity to do at home: tubing, sailing, archery and rif lery, swimming every day, a variety of team activities (teams of individual or combinations of cabins, campers v. staff, capture the flag, and so on). We also offer an arts program for those boys whose first love may not be sports.

We give a small group of the oldest campers a short overnight sea-kayaking experience along mid-coast Maine, and this year we planned several small-group overnight activities away from camp. These shared, small-group adventures are an intense team-building experience and an opportunity to excel in terms of both leadership and physical activity. There is often a bond formed — and mutual respect shared — among those who successfully meet challenges like these together.

Because they are in an environment completely separate from the routine of home and school, many of the boys blossom in terms of trying new things and taking a leadership role in some of the activities. They have the opportunity to take risks they may not have taken at home or in school, and they are able to be recognized for their contributions and successes by camp staff and cabin mates.

Dennen Week staff are a significant part of the boys’ experiences. They are for the most part Camp O-AT-KA alumni or parents of current and former O-AT-KA campers. Almost all are volunteers who give up a week of their time to work with these boys. For some of these boys, interaction with Dennen Week staff — many of whom are in business or are professionals — is an opportunity they might not otherwise have.

Something special we do at the start of each day is share the “password.” The password is a short (five- to ten-minute) story told by a staff member or guest. It draws from the speaker’s experience — as a camper or in school, sports, business, or professional life — or from history. Each story discusses or illustrates leadership, teamwork, ethics, or values, and ends with a key word or phrase. That word or phrase is the “password” of the day and comes up during the day and later that week.

The College Settlement Camp Summer Biking Program

Horsham, Pennsylvania

The College Settlement Camp Summer Biking Program provides campers with educational, fun-filled bike trips. Approximately 93 percent of the children who attend The College Settlement Camp live in homes that fall at or below the poverty level set by the USDA Food Subsidies Program. The objective of the bicycling program is to provide resident campers with an opportunity to experience a positive, active biking program through some of the more scenic areas near and in Philadelphia. The children are provided with top-notch training and biking equipment, and with plenty of positive encouragement, they build up the skills necessary to participate in a challenging day-long bike trip. The bike trip takes place on an eighteen- to twenty-six-mile stretch of the Perkiomen Trail — a beautiful “rails-totrails” path that stretches through historic districts of Pennsylvania toward the heart of Philadelphia.

Why did The College Settlement Camp choose to do a biking program?

Camp Director Karyn McGee: Executive Director Frank Gerome was an avid biker, and he thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of biking — the ability to be physically active while enjoying beautiful scenery and spending time with friends. He also knew that many of our campers had not had the opportunity to participate in such an activity. Almost all of our campers come from impoverished urban areas with busy city streets. We knew that many of them did not own bikes, nor did they have any access to bike trails. Mr. Gerome started our biking program with a small fleet of mountain bikes and began sending campers and staff out to local bike trails for ten- to fourteen-mile rides along scenic off-camp routes.

The program was an immediate success with campers and staff, and it began to grow. Bikes were added each year thanks to kind donations from local biking clubs and grant money we secured. The program grew to include on-camp biking, lessons for campers who could not ride a bike, and this year, an overnight bike trip!

By far, the most rewarding aspect of our biking program is watching the kids and staff have such pride in what they have accomplished. When kids come back from the trip and are just glowing with pride, it reinforces our belief that our program is providing our campers with an incredibly positive experience. Our ability to offer such a unique, positive experience for our campers relies heavily on support from donors and hard work from our staff.

How do you typically prepare campers for the Perkiomen Trail trip?

McGee: A couple of days before a bike trip, the trip’s format is discussed at length with the campers: the length of the trip, what they will learn, what they will see, and what behaviors are expected of them. The campers that choose to participate are then brought to our bike shed and fitted for bikes and helmets. They are given a biking ability test, taught correct bike handling, hand signals, and trail etiquette, and then they are taken on a practice ride through on-camp trails. Once the trip leaders have established that all participating campers are able to ride safely and are comfortable enough to participate in an off-site, longer ride, the trip is ready to go.

Some campers wish to go on the trip but do not have the confidence or skills to participate in such a long ride. Those campers are given the option of participating in an on-camp bike trip at a later date. However, we are usually able to work with campers to bring up their bike handling skills enough to enable them to go on the Perkiomen Trail.

The day of the ride, the trip leaders tow a bike trailer loaded with lunch and with first aid supplies — for both bikes and kids! — to the site, and the campers arrive in a fifteen-passenger van. They ride eight to ten miles alongside the beautiful Perkiomen Creek, stopping for a picnic lunch in one of the trail’s many parks, then turn around and ride back to the van and trailer. The trip usually lasts four hours, and the trip leaders adjust the trip distance according to the campers’ biking ability. Campers arrive back at camp for dinner, receive a warm welcome from everyone there, and are recognized for their biking achievement.

Originally published in the 2012 July/August Camping Magazine. 

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