"Dear Mom and Dad, I’m having a great time at camp," writes twelve-year-old Michael. "Today, I rode a horse for the first time. I thought it would be scary, but it was loads of fun. Tonight I’m going to the camp dance and in the morning we’ll be fishing at the lake. The food is good here, too . . . ."
During the summer camp season, parents across the nation receive many wonderful reports like this one from their happy campers. Yet, there is one thing that makes this account particularly special — it comes from a child with a disability who normally spends the majority of his day in a wheelchair.
Unfortunately, far too many children — and adults — have special challenges that hinder their ability to experience the joys of nature and camp. But, thanks to Camp For All in Burton, Texas, thousands of individuals from Southeast Texas with special needs do attend camp each year — one that is designed especially for them.
A Dream Come True
Camp For All began in 1993, as the dream of Houston physicians, Paul Gerson, M.D., Robert Zeller, M.D., and Larry Neuhaus, a Houston business leader who lost his young son to cancer. Their vision was to create a special place that would embrace those, who because of their illness or disability, had limited opportunity to experience the thrill of camp. Over the next two years, the trio worked diligently on their idea, enlisting support for the project and recruiting a team that would help turn their dream into reality.
As word spread about the possibility of an accessible camp being built near Houston, excitement and enthusiasm for the concept grew among the area’s health-care community. Although many health organizations already were providing camp programs for their special needs groups, all were in agreement that the traditional camps they attended, could not — or would not — adequately accommodate their members.
In 1993, with the help of many dedicated and talented people from nearly twenty health organizations — and with overwhelming support from Houston’s medical community, business leaders, and citizens — the Camp For All Foundation was established. The Board of Directors, planning board, and a small staff began laying the groundwork necessary to build the camp. Together, they tackled hundreds of issues, all the while making campers’ needs their top priority. Through countless hours of research, consultation, and discussion, the team made decisions on everything from safety, medical supervision, programming, and staffing — to the height and width of furniture, doorways, sidewalks, cabins, and restrooms.
In 1995, after months of searching for the perfect location for the camp, the team selected a beautiful 206-acre site, eighty-five miles northwest of Houston, in Washington County, Texas. With its gently rolling hills, the site has a perfect mix of wooded areas — perfect for taking long nature walks — as well as open spaces to accommodate the camp’s buildings, cabins, and activity areas.
Anne Swisher of the Muscular Dystrophy Association and a member of the camp’s original planning team, remembers, "We partnered in building something that would be good for all. A lot of time was spent looking at other camp models, discussing concepts, and determining what was important. We had many spirited discussions because we knew that this had to be a place that everybody could use."
Serving the Special Needs Community
Camp For All welcomed its first groups in the summer of 1998 and has since earned a reputation for being a premier camp and retreat facility serving the special needs community. An accredited member of the American Camping Association, Camp For All hosts more than 5,000 campers and volunteers annually from some forty special needs organizations — providing fun, challenging, and therapeutic programs in a barrier-free and fully-accessible environment.
With week-long camp sessions during the summer, and day and weekend camp programs and retreats in the spring and fall, Camp For All serves groups challenged by conditions ranging from epilepsy, muscular dystrophy and cancer to asthma, burns, and spinal cord injuries. The camp thrives on the unique partnership it maintains with its user organizations. While Camp For All provides the facilities, leadership, and specially-trained staff to administer its programs, the user groups who attend bring their own knowledgeable leaders, medical team, and volunteers who also play major roles in the success of their group’s visit. Each year, a host of physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals, college students, family members, and people from all walks of life volunteer their services by assisting special needs groups at camp.
Houston physicians, Carlos Rivera, M.D., a pediatric neurologist, and his wife, Jayne Finkowski-Rivera, M.D., a neonatologist, attend camp as volunteers each year with a group of young cancer patients and their siblings from Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. The couple has seen first-hand the positive difference the experience can have on patients and their families.
"The independence the kids gain and the sheer happiness they get from participating in the activities stays with them even after they leave camp," says Dr. Rivera. "For a person with special needs, something as simple as paddling a canoe or riding a horse can be a life-changing experience. Helping to provide that experience for our group is one of the most rewarding things we’ve ever done."
Programs and Activities for All
Programs and activities at Camp For All are tailored to meet the varying physical skill levels, mental capabilities, mobility requirements, and age and interest differences of each camper. Programs include aquatics, archery, canoeing, biking, team sports, a ROPES challenge course, horseback riding, arts and crafts, fishing, and much more. Specialized equipment enables maximum participation in all activities.
The camp site features more than 100,000 square feet of facilities, two stocked lakes, two miles of nature trails, several aviaries, and even a huge, wheelchair-accessible tree house capable of accommodating up to twelve campers. The tree house is a favorite gathering spot for informal meetings, relaxing visits with friends, and star gazing at night.
The Camp For All Ranch includes a new, state-of-the-art equestrian center and a small animal farm. The equestrian program provides recreational, educational, and therapeutic benefits for people of all abilities by encouraging them to mount, ride, and care for horses — thus promoting independence, self-esteem, and improved physical ability. The small animal farm allows campers to enjoy a variety of animals, including miniature goats, donkeys, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, and ducks. The area will soon include a hatchery, a beehive observatory, and a working windmill. Gently sloping concrete walkways link all the facilities at the camp and maximize mobility for those in wheelchairs.
"Camp For All just keeps getting better and better," says Vicki LaRue, president and CEO. "We’re continually adding new programs and enhancing our facilities so that we can provide the best possible experience for our guests. For most of these campers, their visit to Camp For All is the highlight of their summer, and, often, it’s the highlight of their year."
Making a Difference
Erica Jones, a twenty-three-year-old volunteer counselor agrees. Erica has spina bifida, but she is a seasoned camper who has been attending camp for years and has always enjoyed the freedom she and the others in her group experience there.
"While we’re there, we’re just like everyone else," she says. "It doesn’t matter to anyone that we’re in wheelchairs. We can swim, play baseball, and do all sorts of things we normally wouldn’t be able to do."
Mandy Peoples, a member of Camp For All’s program staff, recalls, "When I drove through Camp For All’s gates nearly six years ago, I had no idea the impact that this place would have on my life. Selfishly, I thought I was coming to change other people’s lives. While I do hope that has happened over the years, I can’t imagine that I’ve touched these young people half as much as they’ve touched me."
Peoples has many memories of special campers and credits each of them with helping her learn important life lessons that will remain with her forever. "When I glance into a mirror and don’t like the way I look, I remember Davey, a five-year-old who was so severely burned that he had no nose, no ears, and only stubs for fingers. Davey did nothing but laugh during his entire time at camp. The fire couldn’t touch his heart," she says.
Peoples also recalls other campers, like Genya, a young man who had no legs from the thigh down, and whose amazing spirit and determination still inspire her. "After completing the ROPES challenge course one day, Genya decided the terrain was too rough to ride his wheelchair back to the lodge," says Mandy. "Instead he pushed the chair the entire way, walking behind it on the two stubs he has for legs. Rather than complaining, he was boasting about how awesome his ROPES experience was."
The Challenge of Funding
The Camp For All Board and staff work tirelessly to ensure that the camp continues to provide its unique services for many years to come. As a nonprofit organization that does not rely on government or United Way funding, financial support for Camp For All is provided through generous gifts from individuals, foundations, and corporations. The camp’s annual operating budget is $1.9 million. Fees paid by the organizations that sponsor camp groups cover half of all costs. Camp For All must raise the remaining funds required to provide campers with customized activities. These costs include training for program staff, maintenance of the facilities, and purchase of special equipment and materials.
"When one considers furnishing financial or volunteer support to any organization, one examines the need, the results or benefits being delivered, and the effectiveness of the delivery system," says James Gustafson of Camp For All’s Dream Makers Society, a philanthropic group whose members pledge annual support to the camp. "Camp For All meets all three tests with very high marks, and I feel fortunate that my wife and I are able to help. We have confidence in the stewardship that the Camp For All team exhibits."
Camp For All’s phenomenal success speaks to the great need for meaningful and accessible recreational programs for those with special needs. In fact, the organization finds it increasingly difficult to accommodate the large number of groups that want to attend. Currently, the camp’s board of directors is considering new ways to meet the large demand for services. Possibilities being considered include expanding the original camp site, developing a second camp site nearby, and marketing the Camp For All model to nonprofit organizations interested in building similar facilities in other areas.
"The most striking thing about Camp For All is the powerful impact a single week at camp can have on a person’s outlook and outcome," says Rock Houstoun, a Camp For All’s board member. "It would be a wonderful thing to one day be able to offer this experience to every chronically ill or disabled person, not just in Texas, but across the country. That’s my dream."
Jessica Rush is a freelance writer and serves as a marketing consultant for Camp for All and several other nonprofit organizations in the Houston area.
To learn more about Camp For All, please call 713-686-5666 or visit www.campforall.org.
Originally published in the 2004 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.