CAMP LIFE Changes Lives
At the age of 14, a seed of inspiration was planted in Sterling Leija. She began volunteering at a camp for children with special needs called Camp CAMP in San Antonio, Texas. She, not only, fell in love with the mission of camp, but also, with the amazing campers. She was drawn to the camp’s ability to provide a traditional camp experience to campers who might not otherwise experience the activities and friendships developed at camp.
Seeds of Success
Now, fast forward to her college years in ’03 where she is a student at Texas A&M University. While taking part in a self-directed study, her seed of inspiration began to take root. She realized that camping opportunities for children with severe and multiple disabilities was limited in the local community. She encouraged families to reach out to camps serving special needs populations from across Texas. Parents were nervous to send their children far away, or, simply did not have the resources available to participate. It felt natural to Sterling to create her own camp. She called it Camp LIFE. Camp LIFE’s purpose is to serve these families who needed the respite, recreation, and learning opportunities offered by the camp experience.
An idea Grows
Amy Sharp, the director of Family Support Network, an outreach program based at Texas A&M that assists families who have children with disabilities, worked with Leija and Camp For All to make Camp LIFE a reality. The name Camp LIFE was inspired by the principles of camp that Leija values. While at camp, campers develop Leadership skills, experience increased Independence, and make Friends throughout the camp Experience. Camp LIFE is now a fully supported camp for children with disabilities. The camp has served more than 550 children with disabilities from all over the great State of Texas throughout its seven years of operation. Camp is held twice a year at the “barrier free” facilities of Camp For All in Burton, Texas (between Austin and Houston). Camp LIFE provides recreation for children with disabilities as well as for their siblings.
The one-to-one counselor to camper ratio ensures that each camper with a disability receives the support he or she needs to fully participate in all activities. Campers can experience camp, horseback riding, fishing, archery, the zip line and rope course activities, as well as a petting zoo, canoeing, dancing, night pranks and even making S‘mores.
Sibling campers enjoy an extra dose of attention not always available to them when their parents are understandably busy caring for their child who has special needs.
Planting More Seeds
Camp LIFE also provides a positive training experience in preparing future Special Ed Teachers. The camp is staffed primarily with counselors who are “pre-service” special education students at Texas A&M University. These students have the rare opportunity to experience a weekend of working with special needs children, and also interacting with their siblings and families. This experience provides a much more comprehensive view of the special children they will one day teach, and a much different experience than what they would receive in a classroom setting.
Amy Sharp, director of Family Support Network said “Our goal is three-fold: We want to provide recreation for kids, respite for families and a hands-on positive training experience for our pre-service teachers”.
Preparing Future Teachers
Kimmie Bayliss was one such student and counselor at Camp LIFE and is currently working as a Child Life Specialist at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. As a Child Life Specialist, she works with children and families to reduce the stress and anxiety of hospitalization through education and play. She currently works in the Emergency Department and is constantly using knowledge gained through volunteering with Camp LIFE. Bayliss said, “As you can imagine, when children with special needs come to the ER, it can be very chaotic. By being comfortable and very familiar with how to work with special needs children, I am able to assist in making the experience as smooth as possible for the patient, family, and medical staff. I am also able to help educate the medical staff on techniques that are most effective for reducing stress and anxiety for these patients. Through accommodating the environment to the needs of these children, the family’s stress levels are reduced and procedures can be completed in a less traumatic manner.” She continued “Camp LIFE gave me opportunities to improve my skills to build rapport with special needs children quickly, learn techniques to redirect behavior, and better understand the challenges faced by children with special needs and their family. I have seen the confidence that camp brings to each camper. It is amazing to see how proud they feel of themselves when they have made it to the top of the ropes course tower with everyone cheering them on, or when they shot a bullseye at archery. I love seeing the parents’ reaction when they pick up their child on Sunday, and we tell them everything that happened over the weekend. Some are surprised at what their child did, but, all of them are so happy to see their child accepted the way that they are”.
Kimmie explained that Camp LIFE helped fuel her passion for working with special needs children. Last semester, she began working on her Masters in Special Education in hopes of becoming a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. “I feel that my time spent as a counselor helped guide me to this decision. It will assist me in providing better care for my patients and families at the hospital. My biggest take away from the camp is the feeling of love, laughter, hope, and healing that it has provided not only myself, but also, the campers and their families”.
For more information: http://fsn.tamu.edu/camplife.htm
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This post originally appeared on our March/April 2012 Magazine