The Texas Lions Camp
Sessions: Nine one-week summer sessions
Cost: No charge for physical disabled or diabetic children
Age: 7-16 years
Nestled deep in the south-central hilly part of the Lone Star State, and only an hour from San Antonio, sits the historic exurbia town of Kerrville. This mid-size community has a river running through it, a thousand hills around it, a bounty of exotic wildlife in it, and the Texas Lions Camp next to it.
This 515-acre hill country property was charted in 1949 as a children's camp, and has been focusing on altering lives ever since.
Taking claim of being the world's largest service organization with 2 million members and over 30,000 in Texas, the camp is funded directly by the Lions Club. And, because there are Lions Clubs, there are Lions Camps. One exists in Australia and there are over 30 others worldwide with some of the larger camps operating in Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Texas.
In Texas each summer about 1,500 kids get to experience a camp that would typically cost between $1,100-$1,600 per week. However, with the generosity of the Texas Section of Lions Clubs International, and their many capital campaigns, the Texas Lions Camp allows children who have physical disabilities, Type 1 diabetes, and cancer to attend at no charge.
His business card reads "Serving Special Children Since 1949," and 15-year veteran executive director Stephen Mabry oversees a truly special program. The camp's philosophy proactively combines children with all types of disabilities together into one diverse group.
"In life they will be mixed with all types of people, and our goal is to take them where they are and increase their self esteem," Mabry says. "It is not uncommon to see children who can't hear helping children who can't walk."
Another philosophical facet is boosting the confidence of campers by giving them daily challenges so that they learn to adopt a "can do" life attitude. Challenges like swimming or horseback riding may seem ordinary to some, but when accomplished by a child with special needs, it allows him to think differently about everyday life.
Mabry and his staff would like campers to be reprogrammed in their thinking and they give children the opportunity to focus on their abilities by removing any obstacles that keep children from succeeding.
For instance, there are special high back saddles so that kids with stability problems can still ride a horse. Also, the swimming pool starts at zero-depth and slopes down so that kids don't have to drop straight into the water. Also on site is a handicapped-accessible 3/4-mile concrete nature trail winding through the woods.
Other adaptive equipment includes pulley systems on the ropes course, so that children without upper body strength can still climb the 25-foot repelling wall.
Mabry realizes that conventional camps may not feel adequately equipped to deal with some of the special needs presented by campers who have handicaps, but encourages directors to seek ways to include.
And, if a camp has not faced this issue, they probably will at some point. In most instances it is against the law to categorically discriminate against an individual based on their handicap.
Even though it's only a highway width away from the city limits, the camp delivers a natural outdoor wilderness ambiance. Since many campers are from the inner city or have never experienced camping because of disabilities, the program integrates many outdoors encounters.
In contrast, the infrastructure of the Texas Lions camp is modern and up to date. The buildings are comfortable and well maintained, including eight air-conditioned bunkhouses and minimal obstacles that would prevent a child from accessing other parts of camp.
The 400-seat cafeteria is equipped with a state of the art kitchen, current food service amenities, and spacious dining with a hill country view.
The recreation facilities such as the junior Olympic sized pool, the high and low ropes course, sports lake with specially adaptive boat launch, playgrounds, outdoor rodeo arena, indoor riding arena, and miniature golf course, all require constant changes and upgrades.
Consequently, an official capital campaign was conducted in 1995 to raise and spend over $5 million in order to operate according to regulations mandated by the ADA.
Mabry states, "In addition to the fun things you want to add in the way of activities, you do have to keep up your infrastructure, and make sure you're doing what's best for your clients."
For assistance in maintaining and upgrading Texas Lions Camp, Mabry not only has a capable maintenance director and staff, but also looks to his board of directors as a resource.
This isn't your typical board of directors. The board is very large and very much involved. And they are Lions. Mabry chuckles, "I defy anybody to find a larger board of directors than I have."
The board goes by the official name, Texas Lions League for Children Inc., and has 98 voting members and over 325 that serve on one of the many standing committees.
While many may see this as a detriment or a bureaucratic nightmare, there are many benefits from having such a large, well-rounded board. By utilizing sub-committees within the board itself, things get done, and things get done right.
For example, there is a Camp Improvements Committee whose chairman happens to be an architect. This committee is instrumental in overseeing the development of facilities.
Accordingly, the work of these committees is vital to camp.
To expedite communication between the Board of Directors, Mabry established an on-line virtual private network. Members who are spread across the state of Texas can now login and join discussion groups, forums, and see posted announcements. This has enhanced the work being done by those serving on the committees. The board can access the camp directory database through another on-line membership database service.
With such an abundance of accountability, Mabry and The League are committed to building end products with continuity and quality.
"Where I think most camps go awry, is that they start with how much this is going to cost, and then have to cut back in order to pay for things, rather than having things professionally designed, and then going out to raise the money," says Mabry.
Because of the vastness of the needs, this camp relies on highly structured systems and practices. For example, some campers may need up to six medications per day, so the programming becomes data driven.
Tracking this important information became critical when Mabry took over leadership over a decade and a half ago. He states, "To have appropriate data systems and someone who knows how to use it is paramount." Thus, he created a new position, and hired a Manger of Information Services to track and report the abundance of records.
Medically, the infirmary of the camp operates like a mini hospital with 18 nurses who work in hospital type shifts and a camp physician who provides standing orders and protocols.
Although camp programming is primarily offered during the summer, The Texas Lions Camp has opened to leasing and hosting like-minded mission organizations during the off-season. And while the year-round hosting is in its infant stage, the American Cancer Society has already partnered with the camp in providing events for their constituents.
"We would love to broaden our service base by sharing our facility and what we have learned with other mission driven organizations," says Mabry.
Mabry advises, "The main thing is to have adequate staff to deal with the needs and get good information from the parents."
When searching for quality summer staff to work hands-on with this demographic, Mabry has peculiar criteria. While potential staff members may assume they need advanced skills to work with special needs children or feel intimidated by the extraordinary needs of the kids, Mabry says it's more about the heart.
"We are more interested in if they have a heart for children, because if you take a person who is teachable and compassionate, you will get much better results," he says.
To see positive results within an organization whose mission is to see the lives of children altered for the good, staff members must be willing to give. The staffers must be willing to sacrifice their own needs for the needs of the children.
Likewise, potential staff members undergo vigorous screening methods that include an application, personal interview, reference checks, criminal background checks, and a screening through the organization's standard of care.
When a person is hired at the Texas Lions Camp, they are given training in many areas. They learn skills such as sign language, mobility techniques to assist with wheelchair bound kids and behavior modification to deal with child conduct issues. Each trainee is also orientated with the disabilities and illnesses.
If they didn't know what spinal bifida was before they started, by the end of the summer, they will be well aware of how to respond and interact with children who have the condition.
Staff members who come to work at the Texas Lions Camp may think they are coming for just a summer job, but many leave with a life altering experience.
"I cannot even name the amount of people who have come to work here and have found a career and a different life path," says Mabry. "They go back to college and change their major, to things life deaf education or speech pathology, because they found something different inside themselves and they want to bring that to the surface and mike it their life's work."
David Willingham , a.k.a. Willy Dee, is a freelance writer who lives in Kerrville, Texas. He has extensive experience as a youth camp director, ministry consultant, and area network coordinator.