The Blessings Of Alliances

By Bill Redmon

After directing camps for 34 years, I was fairly sure I had it right. But the simple fact is no one has it right—we all continue to learn. It was only after I stepped away from directing a camp that I learned the full value of partnerships or strategic alliances or joining forces or whatever you want to call them.

Following my retirement, my heart and passion was to continue being involved in camps, but I had no facility. However, “doing camp” was what I was good at. Then I joined a board of a small ministry in the community that served people with disabilities.

In my years as a camp director, the camp had served many campers with disabilities and always found a way to include them. I therefore assumed the camp was inclusive and fully engaged. But I have since been introduced to people who have never attended a camp, and I realized just how vast was the community of people with disabilities. In Florida, it is nearly 20 percent of the population.

The camp I served was owned by churches, which provide many vital services to communities, but I wondered why they were not serving people with disabilities. I came up with two reasons:

1.       The leadership did not know what to do.
2.       They thought they did not have the financial resources to do it even if they wanted to.

And besides, some saw ADA as just another government program being pushed down the throats of the American people.

But my heart ached for the new friends I was making, and I realized I had the skill set to do something about it—I would start a camp program for them. These special people needed friends, so we called the camp Camp Friendship. However, I had left all my resources behind when I stepped away from the former camp.

So, with no camp property, no money, no experience in this specialized field, no staff, no office, and no network, I needed a friend as well. And that was the “ah-ha” moment for partnerships. Just because I did not have those things did not mean that someone else did not.

Branching Out
The first point in the partnership was to recognize the ministry that was already serving people with special needs did have experience. For the first two years, it was their camp and I just facilitated.

The second partnership was with the camp I had once directed. I knew the campus and its systems. We needed a place, and it needed a ministry to help people with disabilities. But, we wanted to pay our own way—no subsidy.

The third point related to finances—how to pay for the program. It turns out there are many more people out there who care than I realized. We partnered with a company that owned giant canoes that held 14 paddlers each, and we created a short fundraising paddle trip. We easily raised the $3,000 needed for the first program. In the second year, we repeated the trip and raised $6,000, and $6,000 more for another cause to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

Once the program started and people began talking about it, we found many physical and occupational therapy students who wanted to volunteer. We partnered with a charter school that serves people with special needs, and the school sent well-trained staff members to help as well as campers.

Searching For Solutions
But it did not end there. The camp that partnered with us began to partner with other programs serving people with special needs, and I stepped in to help them collaborate. Subsequently, there were several issues--trails that were not suitable for wheelchairs, the need for Hoyer lifts and specialized equipment, buildings that did not have adequate restrooms, a beach that was not accessible, and more. And space—people in wheelchairs need more space. And the list grew.

By that time, though, we had already learned the value of partnerships and alliances. The local Hospice donated Hoyer lifts. Area churches raised the money to pave the paths. Campers involved in traditional camps did service projects and built ramps. And retirees pulled their RV’s onsite and started to work on adapting the facilities. It is amazing how many grandparents have a child or grandchild with disabilities.

This camp serves about 18,000 camper days a year with fewer than 1,000 of them serving people with disabilities. So, what is the return on investment for so much work for so few? Easy—those paved trails become great skateboard and golf cart paths. The special equipment for mobilization means that the high school football player who just broke his leg can still come to camp. And everybody loves the ramps—especially when heavy equipment has to be moved about. Retirees who donated their work took the time to make the ramps look and feel great, complete with landscaping and an occasional bench.

Added Value
Now the ball is rolling. The vision for a planned pool has now become a small water park complete with a lazy river. A nonprofit organization was formed with the camp to take on the development and financing of the waterpark, including the establishment of a trust fund to cover its maintenance.

A local state college’s Physical Therapy Assistants Department devoted an entire semester to help with the features to be included in the waterpark so it can be enjoyed by people of all abilities. A local chamber of commerce has begun to champion the waterpark, recognizing its potential economic value to the area. A landscape architect, who has probably won more design awards in our state than any other architect, is donating the design.

After three years, the camp with which we aligned understood the value of Camp Friendship, so now it is their program and promoted within their summer-camp brochure.

Did I mention the horses? This camp does not have an equestrian program, nor does it have room for horse ownership. But the camps for people with disabilities wanted to give their campers that experience. A program in a nearby town that gave riding experiences to people with disabilities had lost its riding site due to insurance issues. So, when asked if the group would bring its horses in for a day, the members were happy to do so.

Not being a horse person, I did not know what to expect, but I observed closely. Immediately I saw the camp needed some type of a corral. I put out a request to the Rotary Club to see if anyone had some panels for a round pen, which led me to a member who was connected to a club at a nearby college. The college club applied for a grant from Lowes to build the round pen. I wound up designing my first pen (there are a lot of round pens on the Internet), and in a few months the Rotary Club joined the college club and the Healing Hoofs Arena was built. The camp property now has a round pen, and the camp is able to offer an equestrian experience to some of its guest groups.

The alliances continue to build, and some of the barriers to great experiences for people with disabilities have now been removed.

Bill Redmon lives in Florida and is a retired executive director of a Christian camp; founder of Wild Creek Adventures, a teambuilding company; and founder of Removing the Barriers Initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping organizations that are seeking to remove the barriers to great experiences for people with disabilities.  Reach him at bill@wildcreekadventures.com.