Travel: Special-needs summer camps

This article published in the Denver Post’s 2016 Summer Camp section.

Special-needs camps provide welcome respite for kids and families

Camp can give kids with disabilities a week just to be kids

By Kate Jonuska
Special to The Denver Post

Every summer at Camp Wapiyapi, kids zipline through meadows against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. They hike and bike trails, learn to fish and shoot arrows, but most importantly, they are kids, not patients.

Camper Madison Stanley catches air on the challenge course at Roundup River Ranch in Avon, Colorado, in 2014. (Photo by William R. Edwards, provided by Roundup River Ranch)

Camper Madison Stanley catches air on the challenge course at Roundup River Ranch in Avon, Colorado, in 2014. (Photo by William R. Edwards, provided by Roundup River Ranch)

“We say that healing doesn’t only happen in hospitals, and that’s so true,” says Kelly Hayes, program manager at Camp Wapiyapi, a summer camp that serves pediatric cancer patients and their siblings.

“Unless they’re obviously missing some hair or are receiving treatment, we often can’t tell who is the patient and who is the sibling, and that’s the point,” she says.

“They’re not fragile flowers, and they can get outside and get to camp.”

All around Colorado, sometimes unbeknownst to so-called mainstream families, specialized camps like Wapiyapi are making kids with special needs — children with major illnesses like cancer and asthma, or developmental disabilities and sensory-integration disorders — feel normal. It’s a safe environment for those kids; Wapiyapi, for example, even has chemotherapy available on-site.

“I know recreation is therapeutic for myself, and getting the opportunity to provide that experience for more people, especially those who might not otherwise have it, is what we try to do,” says Claire DiCola, admissions director of the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC), where children and young adults use adaptive paddles to river raft and every camper, even those using wheelchairs, can play on the same ropes course.
“The thing I hear the most is, ‘I never thought I could do that,’ ” DiCola says. Especially for children who more often hear more about their limitations than their strengths, “the idea that ‘I’m capable of more in my life,’ or for parents, that ‘my child is capable of more than he or she is doing now’ — that’s powerful.”

Certainly, building independence has always been a goal of overnight summer camps, but for this population of kids and their families, one week or more of such independence each summer can be life-changing.

Ashley Seder, director of the American Lung Association’s Champ Camp for children with asthma, provides the example of a young camper who had been in the hospital with severe asthma for 72 days of the previous school year before her first camp experience.

“The next year, I called her mom to see how she was doing, and it turned out she’d been in the hospital one day that school year,” says Seder. Thanks to camp, she said, “she learned she’s not alone and learned how to manage her asthma and even became captain of the volleyball team. Now she goes to sleep overs, to her grandparents’ house, camping.”

And there’s Adam, the boy with cerebral palsy whose success launched Adam’s Camp, a program serving kids with a variety of special needs. He took his first steps after a week of intensive therapy in the mountains at age 6, and 30 years later, the camp that grew from that humble beginning now hosts 140 families in its therapy program and 200-300 individuals in its adventure camp each summer.

“In 2015, 85 percent (of our families) said their child made new friends and 72 percent saw gains in independence,” says Adam’s Camp director of development and communications Sarah Hartway. “That’s astounding in a population that needs extra time and support to make those things happen, especially in a one-week period. It’s pretty remarkable.”

The peer support camp provides is the key, says Dr. Lia Gore, chair of the board at Roundup River Ranch, whose campers have various medical needs that require intensive treatment or supervision impossible at traditional camps.

“For the most part, kids who have to deal with medical illness — having to be at the hospital a lot and out of normal activities — they feel isolated,” she says. “When they’re around a whole bunch of kids who know exactly what they feel like and are going through, that disappears and they can just be kids.”

Support for families

Camp is where no one dances around the word cancer or cares about your walker, oxygen tank or speech patterns. However, these special-needs camps are not only remarkable for the child. After all, an ill or differently-abled child can’t help but require a family’s time and energy.

“There are families who literally never get to go out to dinner because one is always at the hospital and the other is always with the other kids at home,” says Gore. “They’ve often never had a quiet evening together since their kids have gotten sick, let alone a spousal vacation.”

Caring for that child is also usually a financial burden for families. Yet, though the equipment and training necessary to keep such campers safe and happy is expensive, most camps are able to offer free or heftily discounted programs thanks to community support in both dollars and volunteer hours.

“Some of our volunteers come away saying truly life-changing things,” says Adam’s Camp’s Hartway. “They say they found their career calling or learned more about themselves than they thought they would. They say they look at individuals with disabilities in a completely new way. It can be very transformational.”

You could say it’s transformational for everyone.

“I have seen directly how much it benefits kids who go to camp,” says Gore. “They come back absolutely changed, more resilient and stronger, more able to get through the hard days.”

“If you can reach one family who can get to camp, it’s life-changing and can’t be overestimated.”

Kate Jonuska: or

Get involved

Learn more about making a donation or volunteering for a special-needs camp.

Adam’s Camp: 303-563-8290,

Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center: 970-453-6422,

Camp Wapiyapi: 303-534-0883,

Champ Camp: 1-800-LUNG USA,

Roundup River Ranch: 970-524-2267, roundupriver

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