Making Campsites, Camp Ministry, and Camp Activities Accessible
by Lynn Swedberg
Given the rural, hilly, or lakeside locations of most church camps, creating accessibility for all campers is a challenge. Full accessibility must cover access to the camp’s ministry, activities, and opportunities, including formative experiences and the chance to build relationships. Now a number of United Methodist camps have accepted the challenge and strive to facilitate the full participation of children, youth, and adults of all abilities.
The Minnesota Conference is in the forefront of accessible camp ministry, having run its Integration Specialist program for many years. Deaconess Leslie Hobson directs the program, training all camp staffers in ways to make inclusion happen. The conference employs two integration specialists who are placed in selected camps each week for campers needing extra guidance and attention. The specialists are not one-on-one caregivers but offer the support needed to help all campers fi t in, move about, and use their gifts freely. While staying in the background, the specialists model and prompt interactions among campers and between campers and staff.
One camper who has benefited from this program is Erich Hoffman, who has attended camp annually for nearly 10 years. His mother, Gail Hoffman, reports that camp is the one week of the year in which Erich is the most included in activities. Erich has Williams Syndrome, which can cause difficulties with walking, balance, and speech. The first time his mother saw him singing, dancing, and having a speaking part in the camp play she became tearful. “No one had ever given him the chance to perform before,” she said. She didn’t even know that he could do these things. Camp leaders structure the performance for success, and other campers step in, offering cues to help Erich play his part. When they evaluate their week, fellow campers often write about how much Erich has taught them and how strong a faith he has. Erich has made ongoing friendships at camp and loves seeing his friends at conference youth events. Making lasting friends is a major need for many children with disabilities, who often have smaller circles of friends than typical peers in their age groups.
In 2013, the Integration Specialist program provided direct support for around 25 campers and completed assessments on about 160 more whose needs could be met by the regular staff. The assessments are kept in a central online location that camp deans and staff can access when planning activities and approaches for the year. Having this information available from year to year creates continuity and facilitates growth opportunities for the campers.
Easily the most visible change in camp programming in the past 20 years has been the rapid increase in the number of challenge courses. Seeing a camp’s complex athletic or play structures, the average visitor probably assumes that the zip lines, climbing towers, and rope courses are not accessible to campers with disabilities. That assumption has been challenged at a growing number of United Methodist camps, including Camp Tekoa in the Western North Carolina Conference and Camp Aldersgate in the Kentucky Conference.
Camp Highroad in the Virginia Conference offers a special harness with a built-in seat for the zip line and other activities. While most campers can get by with standard safety harnesses, which are designed for full support should someone slip, a few campers need the seat harness. One girl who used the special harness has no arms or legs, but she was able to participate thanks to the seat.
“The campers’ eyes light up when they are on the zip line,” says program director Adam Davis. “They love the whole thing.” Davis introduces team-building exercises by referring to the story from 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 about how parts of the body work together. “I tell them we are all different parts of the body, each with a special function that is important to the whole,” he adds. Having a camper with a disability on the team adds to the complexity of working together to accomplish a goal. Group success quickly builds team cohesiveness and gives the players a sense of accomplishment. Davis also reports that typical teens learn to listen to the camper with a disability because that camper usually has the best ideas for solving the problems. The team-building experience often leads to friendships that outlast the time at camp.
Adults with Vision Loss
Camping is not just for children and youth. Blue Lake Camp in the Alabama-West Florida Conference offers an Extreme Vision Experience camp each year for adults with impaired vision. An ever-increasing number of campers come from all over the United States for a chance to be with others facing similar obstacles. In 2013, 84 participants attended the camp, along with caregivers and volunteers. The goal is to fill the entire camp and to develop similar ministries in other parts of the country.
The opening Communion service at the camp is led by a pastor who is blind. Camp days are framed by morning and evening devotions. Between devotions, the schedule offers more choices than any one camper can fit in. Wanda Scroggins, the camp’s co-dean, teaches the independent living skills that she learned when she lost her eyesight. She finds creative ways to use crafts and games as teaching tools. Dirk Price, the other co-dean, instructs campers in woodworking and repair skills so that they can do basic maintenance at home. Negotiating the unfamiliar surroundings leads campers to improved orientation and mobility.
Another camp component is the chance to try new things that many people who are blind might not otherwise experience. A United Methodist motorcycle group shows up on the first day, as participants are arriving, and takes campers for motorcycle rides. Last year, a blind man captained a pontoon boat ride, using a talking GPS system for navigation. Other outdoor activities include archery, a hayride, golf, swimming, hiking, and listening to birds. No two years at the camp are the same, and offerings are rotated so that repeat campers can try out new activities.
Making Camps Accessible
The DisAbility Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church offers camp accessibility site visits. Camp directors in Texas, Washington, Ohio, Montana, and California have walked around their camps, learning to spot features that limit use by people with mobility or visual impairments. The goal is to maintain the camp’s natural, rustic appearance while improving access. A sloped access path with switchbacks is a perfect place to install benches for rest and contemplation. Compressed gravel surfaces that breathe and allow rain to penetrate look natural while remaining firm and level. Boardwalks, temporary beach trail mats, and beach wheelchairs offer access over sandy pathways.
The Committee also offers training to camp staff through the Camp and Retreat Leaders Gatherings, sponsored by the General Board of Discipleship. In 2013, participants learned about including campers with autism and about the Minnesota Integration Specialist inclusion model. One group participated in a walk-around accessibility tour, since the best way to learn to spot barriers is to leave the classroom and identify obstacles that most of us walk by without noticing. Uneven walkways and door thresholds are common obstacles.
Accommodating campers who are blind also requires attention to protruding or low-hanging signs and tree branches.
Independent navigation is easier if there is a detectible edge to the pathway or sidewalk. Blue Lake camp puts up a guide rope so that participants can find their way down to the lake. Tactile and Braille signs make it possible for people to find rooms without assistance. Many people who are blind use computers proficiently and appreciate camp websites that are accessible to them. Features like the description of images and easy-to-navigate menus make using a screen reader easy. Online forms in Microsoft Word format are accessible, but pdf files are seen by the screen-reading programs as images and thus are not usable by most people with low vision.
Camping offers children, youth, and adults a chance to encounter God in the natural world, in the love shared in community, and in stories told around the campfire. Campers grow in faith and in self-confidence as they attempt and master difficult challenges. These United Methodist camps are doing their part to make this transformational ministry accessible to all.
Lynn Swedberg, a licensed and registered occupational therapist, is the Disability Consultant for the DisAbility Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church. She is a strong camp supporter and has offered workshops on camp accessibility and inclusion for the 2010 and 2012 United Methodist Camp and Retreat Leaders’ Gatherings. She enjoys conducting camp accessibility site visits and often looks for the nearest camp when she travels for committee work.
This article, published in New World Outlook May-June 2014 issue, is, in part, adapted from articles in The Voice of the United Methodist Disability Connection, Vol. 1, No. 3 and Vol. 3, No. 3.
At Camp Aldersgate in Little Rock, AR, a volunteer helps campers with spina bifida up a ramp.
Photo: Richard Lord
A participant in Adventure Camp, a camp for children who are missing limbs. A special harness allows children of different abilities to experience the zip line at Camp Highroad, of the Virginia Conference.
Photo: Courtesy Camp Highroad
Campers arrive for the Extreme Vision Experience, an event for adult campers, at Blue Lake Camp in the Alabama-West Florida Conference.
Photo: Courtesy Wanda Scroggins
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