More than 50 athletes recently attended the 13th Annual Special Olympics Delaware Summer Camp at Camp Barnes in Frankford.
The Special Olympics Summer Camp has evolved over the years, starting as a sports summer camp with basketball and soccer clinics, to the traditional summer camp, with crafts and kayaking.
“When we first started, what we quickly realized is that our campers wanted to go to a true summer camp, that they don’t otherwise have an opportunity to do,” said Jon Buzby, director of media relations, who created the camp 13 years ago. “That’s how it has evolved to what you see here — basic camp activities. I can’t tell you how many people over the last 13 years say that the first time they kayaked was here at camp. The first time they pulled a crab out of the water was here at camp. We really do provide the athletes with an opportunity to experience that true camp experience. It’s been 13 years in the making.”
For the third consecutive year, 25 high school students served as counselors as part of Special Olympics Delaware’s Project UNIFY initiative. During the three-day camp, campers and counselors spend time as peers, enjoying the great outdoors.
“I like just hanging out with friends. You can make new friends and have fun,” said 16-year-old athlete Robert Scott, who attended camp for the second time.
While at camp, athletes and counselors are able to enjoying fishing, swimming, archery, and arts and crafts and lots more.
“Today I actually fell out of the canoe, by accident,” Scott said with a laugh. “It was scary, but it was nice.”
Athlete Tayla Robeson of Bear, who participated in swimming, bowling, and equestrian sports, enjoyed her first year at camp and said that camp was so much fun she wants to attend next summer.
“Yes, I want to come back next year. I got to meet new friends,” she said.
Seven-year-old Robeson added that the activities make camp a great deal of fun.
“It’s fun because we get to go kayaking. I was diving under water today. It was fun because I got to get my hair wet,” she said. “And we have our own bunk beds!”
Camp culminated with an evening dance where campers, counselors, and volunteers let loose and danced the night away. This year’s dance theme was Halloween, and campers were given the opportunity to dress up in costumes.
“I’m going to dance with the boys,” said 16-year-old athlete Olivia Davidson who attends Sussex Central High School. “I didn’t bring a costume. I’m going to wear a skirt and shirt.”
“I get to wear my costume. I’m going to be a ballerina!” exclaimed Robeson.
“I can’t wait for tonight to see all the costumes,” added Rachel Grimm, who’s interning for Special Olympics Delaware.
This fall Grimm will be a senior at the University of Delaware, majoring in Human Services. Although she had previously worked with Special Olympics New Jersey, Grimm said summer camp is a new experience.
“I had no idea what to expect. It’s definitely been a great experience so far. I’m really enjoying it, my campers are great and I have amazing staffers helping. I love the interaction between the students and the athletes.”
According to their Web site, Project UNIFY, now in its fifth year, is an education-based project that uses sports and education programs to activate young people to develop school communities where all youth are agents of change — fostering respect, dignity, and advocacy for people with intellectual disabilities.
“The Project UNIFY counselors are basically here to just provide that one-on-one camp experience, it’s an inclusive camp experience. It lets them have fun and enjoy different activities,” explained Kylie Melvin, coordinator of Special Olympics Youth and School Initiatives.
Melvin has been a volunteer with Special Olympics since she was 11-years-old and enjoyed it so much that she now works for the organization.
“I became involved as a Unified partner when I was 11 then once I got old enough I became a coach and a camp counselor here,” she said. “I met a young boy who was a Special Olympics athlete. His mom approached me about being a Unified partner. I went and fell in love with it, stayed involved with it over the years, and eventually went to school for it.”
Buzby said that early interaction is key to having the counselors become agents of change. A father of a college senior, Buzby said that when his eldest son was younger he attended Special Olympics Summer Camp, and was changed by it.
“At the time it was his first exposure to people with disabilities. About two years after he was at camp, he was in middle school and he came home on the first day of school and said, ‘Hey, Dad, by the way, I ate lunch with one of your athletes.’ Not someone he had met here, just somebody in school that he saw had a disability. I said, ‘Oh that’s cool. How did that happen?’ He said, ‘My friends and I were sitting at one table and he was sitting by himself and I went over and invited him to come sit with us.’”
“That’s what it’s all about. That’s what we’re trying to do with having these high school students here. Several of these high school kids come from private schools where they don’t interact with people with disabilities. This gives them that true experience that they don’t usually have.”
Buzby also has two younger sons, ages 3 and 4 years old, and said he can’t wait until they too can attend camp.
“My boys are already asking when they can come to camp and I fully intend to get them involved in the camp experience. I think it’s one thing to have them come to the Summer Games and volunteer for an hour; it’s a completely different thing to come here and hang out with people for three days and develop friendships. It’s an invaluable life experience for anybody.”
Sixteen-year-old Sussex Technical High School student Caroline Breeding said that she first got involved by helping her mom, a special education teacher and coach for Special Olympics athletes.
“I just got more involved from there,” she said.
Breeding said that last year’s camp was such a good experience that she wanted to serve as a counselor again.
“Last year was so fun, and the atmosphere is so positive. The kids love it so much and it gives them a sense of encouragement. They get to bond with people that they don’t get to see in school, because sometimes they’re more isolated.”
Breeding added that the athletes aren’t the only ones that glean something from the camp experience.
“They learn a lot from us and we learn a lot from them. I wouldn’t have such a positive attitude if I wasn’t with them all the time, because they’re always so happy. I’ve learned so much from it. You learn to deal with different situations.”
Grimm agreed. “I think it just helps every person grow and to be a better person,” added Grimm. “I think for both athletes and students. It’s a great way for them to interact and become more rounded people. I wish I had started earlier.”
Marie McIntosh of Bethany Beach who volunteers at the camp first got involved with Special Olympics Delaware in 1976, when she was the swimming instructor and a special educator at Newark High School.
McIntosh said that it’s amazing to watch the campers and counselors make lifelong connections at camp.
“I think the athletes feel somewhat empowered because they’re at camp and they can do so much. It’s a neat thing to have watched over the years,” she said. “These athletes love to be together. For the Project UNIFY partners, it’s a great thing for them because it’s awareness for now and for the future. This crew has been outstanding. The connections they have made with each other, the connections they have made with the athletes have been absolutely fantastic to watch. What a great group, truly.”
McIntosh added that it broadens the counselors’ perspective when it comes to politics, and the idea of considering everybody’s situation.
“I think it’s important for the future, when political decisions are made in some aspects like Medicare, issues that impact our athletes that we don’t really think about. It’s one thing those young adults will start to think about because they’ve been working with these athletes. When you’ve had this kind of interaction you begin to think about that population and how they’ll be impacted.”
Merry Jones, who volunteers at the camp, said that it was the first overnight camp her daughter Kimberly attended.
“I think it’s something important. It gives them independence, a chance to be away from Mom or Dad and do their own thing. Even though we’re here together at camp I’m always in the kitchen and rarely see her.”
Jones added that Special Olympics Delaware has been a wonderful program for her daughter, who participates in bowling, volleyball, cheerleading, and tennis, as well as many other athletes.
“It gives a lot of physical activity for those who, like my daughter, would be sedentary. She doesn’t like the sports action so much, but she likes being social and spending time with her friends. So if you can do that in an atmosphere where you’re getting some physical activity as well, it’s a good thing.”
Jones said participating in the Summer Games has always been a special experience for Kimberly because she gets to spend the night in the dorms at the University of Delaware.
“Her two older sisters went to U of D and graduated from there, so she’s always talking about ‘going to this school that my sisters went to,’” she said. “I think it’s a marvelous program. I wish more parents and members of the community would get involved. If they started coming to things, it gets contagious.”
McIntosh said that she hopes more kids from the area, who may not participate in Special Olympics already, consider giving the program a try.
“Sometimes parents really need to let them go and recognize they can do a lot more than they think they can,” she said. “We would really like to have more athletes in Sussex County, especially in this area. It would really be nice in this area, like Bethany, Fenwick, Selbyville, to get more athletes involved. We are readily available and willing to take on as many as there are.”
Jones added that participating in the sports and the camp is beneficial for all involved, and hopes that it broadens everyone’s views regarding disabilities.
“I think it adds the physical component, the social component, and they get to be with peers and they get a chance to be with Unified partners as well. I think that’s a win for both participants because the Unified participants get to see that special kids are just the same as everybody else. They may do things a little bit differently, a little bit slower but they still enjoy the same things.”
For more information about Project UNIFY or how to get involved with Special Olympics Delaware, visit www.sode.org or call (302) 831-4653.