BY LAURA WHITAKER
In 2014, Extra Special People (ESP) officially became the proud owner of 70 acres of beautiful, empty land in northeast Georgia – and Camp Hooray, a place where accessibility will be a foundational feature rather than a rushed afterthought, was one step closer to becoming a reality.
Worried? Anxious? Not even close.
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 single word: terrified. The fact that millions of children in America attend camp every summer is no consolation for Toni, as it would be for other parents. Toni is accustomed to fears that many parents will never face as Samantha was born with cerebral palsy.
Despite her apprehension, Toni let Samantha attend a camp program last summer, entrusting her daughter to the care of others for one of the first times. Samantha’s physical and verbal barriers require special care and undivided attention, which Toni has found difficult for others to lend if they are unfamiliar with individuals with special needs. So, when the phone rang only hours into Samantha’s first day at camp, Toni immediately sprang into emergency mode: something has happened to my daughter.
Toni was halfway into the 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 Toni. “No, Mrs. Boyd, everything is fine! There’s just something we wanted you to hear.”
That “something” was the most beautiful sound Toni had ever heard. Samantha was laughing. Her daughter was passionately, playfully, joyously laughing while interacting with peers her age at summer camp, a scene Toni had only ever dreamed of while raising a child with special needs. And now, Samantha was living that dream.
As parents of individuals with special needs know too well, many dreams remain dreams. Whether it’s the lack of a community’s resources, or the large expense of attending special needs-specific programs, parents regularly find that giving their children with special needs the same experiences as everyone else is difficult and financially draining. As summer rolls around and kids head to water parks, summer camps and baseball games, those with special needs rarely view those activities as a possibility.
Despite the difficulties, there are still those who dream. But, more important, they strive to make dreams a reality. Martha Wyllie was one of those dreamers, and it was her specific dream that kick-started the journey that led to Toni hearing a laugh from Samantha that she never thought she would.
In 1986, Wyllie saw a need for inclusivity in Watkinsville, Georgia, a small town with big plans, located 65 miles east of Atlanta. She envisioned a place where children and young people with special needs 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. No child with a disability is turned away from ESP, and the organization welcomes children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, fetal alcohol syndrome, Angelman syndrome, spina bifida and many more.
ESP’s foundational summer camp program is open to kids of all ages and all abilities. Serving more than 250 people each summer, the camp provides 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 those around you. Rather than hitting the ball harder, swimming father or climbing higher than your peers, ESP encourages campers to hit harder, swim farther and climb higher than his or her own personal best.
Over the last 30 years, the presence of ESP in northeast Georgia has transformed the entire community’s relationship with individuals with special needs. Volunteers from the community and nearby University of Georgia students facilitate after-school and summer programs, building strong and long lasting bonds with ESP participants and families. Melissa Salmon, Oregon native and mother of ESP camper Blue bragged of how her son has found a home at ESP since they relocated to Georgia.
“I was sheltering my child because a fear of being rejected, and now he knows more people than I do,” Salmon said. “I’ll never move.”
Although ESP provides unparalleled opportunities for young people with special needs, its summer camp cannot yet offer one classically integral camp experience: the ability 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. Along with inaccessibility to the prized top bunk, Whitaker found that kids in wheelchairs often entered campground buildings through separate entrances. Even in more advanced special needs-focused camps, fire pits weren’t built to allow campers on wheels or with walking instruments to roast their own marshmallows. Simply stated, there is not a single camp facility in the country that is completely accessible.
The idea of Camp Hooray was born to change that. “We realized we had the opportunity to build the first-ever, fully accessible camp from the ground up,” said 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.”
In the summer of 2014, ESP was introduced to 70 acres of beautiful, empty land in northeast Georgia that it never intended to purchase. Following a chain of somewhat fateful events, ESP’s hesitancy turned into excitement at what the space had the potential to become – a fully accessible overnight camp. Whitaker and ESP began to envision a place that they didn’t have to rent for summer camp; a place molded and built from the ground up for individuals with disabilities.
They dreamt of a place for summer fun and weekend respite from the realities of everyday life for families with special needs. By December, ESP officially became the proud owner of the beautiful property, and Camp Hooray, a place where accessibility will be a foundational feature rather than a rushed afterthought, was one step closer to becoming a reality.
In Georgia alone, there are more than 2,000 children with special needs who could be served by ESP, and for each child who attends camp, there is another one waiting. Camp Hooray would ensure that more individuals with special needs are able to enjoy the classic summer camp experience that they undoubtedly deserve. ESP’s dream is to make Camp Hooray the most accessible, technologically advanced camp in the country, offering an unprecedented experience to the more than six million children with disabilities in the U.S.
But how will ESP ensure that each child who attends Camp Hooray experiences all that summer camp has to offer, no matter the ability level?
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. Just as Camp Hooray will be the first of its kind, this partnership and collaboration of resources between two rival state universities is unprecedented. The design process of Camp Hooray was a whirlwind of innovative ideas and creative thinking, all executed with a “top bunk mentality,” keeping those who will benefit from the camp top of mind throughout.
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 a specific and intended outcome. The students incorporated feedback sessions with stakeholders, allowing them to evaluate their work as it developed.
“We like to think of the process as tornados in reverse,” explained 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.”
“Our students were intensely inspired by the ESP project and the kids who would be served at this camp,” he continued. “Several of them continued volunteering for the organization after their experience.”
Parents and their children with special needs huddled around drafting tables with the students to emphasize what’s important to them as prospective campers, addressing mobility challenges and medical needs that aren’t typically considered during the students’ design projects. The students surveyed the property in wheelchairs, blindfolded and more to experience terrain as the campers might.
“It was breathtaking and totally awe inspiring to see the university students navigating the property with their ‘special abilities,’” Strickland remembered. “Their experience at the camp site offered a unique perspective that informed their design. Putting themselves in our kids’ shoes was innovative and necessary to make it the place it needs to be.”
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 that 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 rockwall – activities not traditionally offered to campers with special needs.
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 you choose it, anything is possible.
“Camp Hooray is a dream we didn’t even know we had,” said 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.”•
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Laura Whitaker began as a volunteer at Extra Special People in 2003. With her passion for enhancing the lives of children with developmental disabilities and her specialized education in this field, Laura was selected as the executive director after the founder, Martha Wyllie’s sudden passing in 2004. As Executive Director, Laura uses her leadership and management strengths to manage staff, oversee year-round programs and summer camps and raise millions of dollars for the organization. Her favorite part of the job is getting to hug the many children who walk through the ESP doors.
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 and make their dream a reality by the summer of 2020. To learn more, visit www.camphooray.com