Camp Hooray

By Laura Whitaker

If Toni Boyd could have described her emotions on the day she dropped off her daughter Samantha at summer camp for the first time, she would have used one word—terrified. The fact that millions of children in America attend camp every summer was no consolation for Boyd, as it would be for other parents. She is accustomed to fears that many parents will never face because Samantha was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that requires special care and undivided attention.

Despite her apprehension, Boyd let Samantha attend a camp program last summer, entrusting her daughter to the care of others for one of the first times. When the phone rang only hours into Samantha’s first day, Boyd sprang into emergency mode—immediately assuming something had happened to her daughter.

Boyd was halfway to her car when she answered the call, breathless and prepared for the worst. “What’s wrong? I’ll be there as soon as I can. I’m calling 911.”

The excited voice of a camp volunteer on the other end of the line surprised her. “No, Mrs. Boyd, everything is fine! There’s just something we wanted you to hear.”

That “something” was the most beautiful sound Boyd had ever heard. Samantha was laughing—passionately, playfully, joyously while interacting with peers her age at summer camp—a scene Boyd had only ever dreamed of while raising a child with special needs. And now, Samantha was living that dream.

Connecting With A Cause
It’s a sad reality that most children with special needs miss many of the summer-camp experiences that most people consider integral to childhood. Whether it’s the lack of community resources or the large expense of attending special needs-specific programs, these families rarely view summer camp as a possibility.

In 1986, Martha Wyllie saw a need for inclusivity in Watkinsville, Ga., a small town with big plans, located 65 miles east of Atlanta. She envisioned a place where children and young people could focus on their abilities rather than their disabilities in the form of a high-quality yet affordable summer camp. That vision birthed Extra Special People (ESP), an organization that now serves more than 300 families every summer, and throughout the year with after-school and family-support programs.

ESP’s foundational summer-camp program is open to kids of all ages and all abilities, providing continuous learning as well as social and recreational opportunities with classic camp activities like rock climbing, boating, archery, swimming, crafts, and much more. Staying true to one of its original principles—affordability—ESP never asks a family to provide more than 25 percent of the cost of any activity.

Since ESP’s inception, campers have been challenging and pushing themselves to succeed physically and socially at a summer camp with programming designed specifically for them. Counselors form close relationships with the participants, catering to individual needs and abilities. At ESP, the activities aren’t focused on doing better than others. Rather than hitting the ball harder, swimming father, or climbing higher than their peers, ESP encourages campers to hit harder, swim farther, and climb higher as his or her own personal best.

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Inspiring A Vision
Although ESP provides unparalleled opportunities for young people with special needs, its summer camp cannot yet offer one integral camp experience—to sleep on the top bunk.

This heartbreaking realization sent ESP Executive Director Laura Whitaker on a tour of special-needs camps around the country, where she found inspiration as well as vast room for improvement in the sphere of accessible summer camps. Whitaker found that kids in wheelchairs often entered campground buildings through separate entrances, and fire pits weren’t built to allow campers on wheels or with walking instruments to roast their own marshmallows. She could not find a single camp facility in the country that was completely accessible.

Camp Hooray had an idea to change that.

“We realized we had the opportunity to build the first-ever, fully accessible camp from the ground up,” says Carter Strickland, Chairman of ESP’s Board of Directors. “We could make the camp experience as authentic for our kids with special needs as it is for any kid in America.”

Following a chain of somewhat fateful events, ESP purchased 70 acres of beautiful land in northeast Georgia, knowing that the space had the potential to become a fully accessible overnight camp for individuals with disabilities. They dreamt of a place for summer fun and weekend respite, where accessibility would be a foundational feature rather than an afterthought.

ESP’s vision is to make Camp Hooray the most accessible, technologically advanced camp in the country, offering an unprecedented experience to the more than 6-million children with disabilities.

Turning To The Experts
ESP enlisted the help of students from two schools—the University of Georgia and Georgia Institute of Technology—to lead the architecture and landscape design efforts of Camp Hooray with a “top-bunk mentality,” keeping those who will benefit from the camp uppermost in mind.

Known as a charrette, the intense period of design and planning activity is a process both universities use to focus on a particular issue with an intended outcome. The students incorporated feedback sessions with stakeholders, allowing them to evaluate the work as it developed.

“We like to think of the process as tornados in reverse,” explains Pratt Cassidy, University of Georgia’s Director of College of Environment and Design and leader of the project. “Everything is disturbed, and through the process it pulls itself together and becomes coherent in the end.”

Parents and their children with special needs huddled around drafting tables with the students to emphasize what is important to them as prospective campers, addressing mobility challenges and medical needs that aren’t typically considered during the students’ design projects. The students even surveyed the property in wheelchairs, blindfolded, to experience terrain as the campers might.

After six months, the two schools presented their final drafts, and the vision for Camp Hooray came to life on the page—a realistic possibility. The split-level cabins will give children in wheelchairs access to the top bunk without being separated from the rest of the campers. Common areas of the cabins and camp buildings will be engineered so the children with behavioral disabilities can safely and intentionally wander. Skywalk paths high in the treetops will offer contained and safe pathways of inspiration. And a unique “Activitree” provides a treehouse setting for outdoor adventures like zip-lining and a rock wall—activities not traditionally offered to campers with special needs.

Dream Big And Believe
Camp Hooray is a big dream, and making it a reality will not be a small feat. But for those at ESP, hope is a choice, and once chosen, anything is possible.

“Camp Hooray is a dream we didn’t even know we had,” says Strickland. “We want these kids and their families to experience life to the fullest, and that means offering a summer camp with no limitations. Every child with every ability will thrive at Camp Hooray.”

ESP is now on a journey to gather funding from local and national organizations that align with ESP’s fundamental values of compassion and community to make the dream a reality by the summer of 2020. To learn more, visit www.camphooray.com.

Laura Whitaker is the Executive Director for Extra Special People. Reach her at Laura@extraspecialpeople.com.

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Camp Basics
ESP runs eight weeks of summer camp. Four weeks are for day camps held at the headquarters in Watkinsville, Ga. Campers go swimming and bowling and engage in activities like arts and crafts, cooking, and sports. There are also “messy camp days” on Friday at the Camp Hooray property. Two weeks are for field trips divided by under-18 and 18 and older. During field trips, campers go into the community to do activities like the zoo, tubing in North Georgia, Six Flags, Stone Mountain, a country club day, and yoga. Two weeks of overnight camp are also divided by age where staff members stay with campers at rented facilities at Camp Twin Lakes in Winder, Ga. Participants get the full overnight experience with rock climbing, horseback riding, canoeing, and campfires.

Ratio: 2:1, with some variation depending on each camper’s needs.
Location: Watkinsville, Ga., with Fridays at Camp Hooray in Jackson, Ga.
Cost: $225 to $300 a week
Ages: Campers can begin coming to camp at four years old, and don’t age out. The oldest camper last summer was 45 years old.

Additional Information: While ESP is first and foremost a camp meant to create typical summer experiences for campers of all abilities, it does incorporate recreational therapy—using purposeful activities to improve motion or social skills. Many campers meet individual goals and objectives throughout the summer. The recreational therapist works with families and staff to make sure each camper is having fun while simultaneously creating an environment of inclusion and learning.