Mason Cunningham, 11, looked a little nervous as he settled into a voyageur canoe last fall during Adventure Camp, an event Lincoln Heritage Council regularly hosts at Camp Crooked Creek for special-needs schoolchildren.
But you could tell by Mason’s grin that the fifth grader was more excited than worried about canoeing with his classmates from Cedar Grove Elementary School in nearby Shepherdsville. In fact, as soon as the 10-minute trip was over, he told speech language pathologist Kaycee Woods, “I liked it. What do we do now?”
As Mason’s classmates headed off to their next activity — an adaptive music station run by arts group VSA Kentucky — longtime canoeing volunteer Mike Broderick reflected on Adventure Camp’s impact.
“A couple of years ago, I had one kid who was so excited, he said, ‘This is the best day of my life,’” Broderick recalls. “I think it’s great to be able to get kids out and give them the opportunity to experience the outdoor environment and do an activity like this where they might not have had the opportunity before.”
All Are Welcome
Adventure Camp began in the early 1990s as a partnership with Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville to take kids fishing. It has since grown to serve students from 10 school districts, with as many as 2,300 kids participating over 10 days in the spring and fall. The camp is open to any self-contained special-needs class, so it serves kids with a range of conditions.
“We have all abilities,” says Sarah Flowers, director of camping services. “We have kids who are in wheelchairs or nonmobile. We have kids with Down syndrome. We have kids with just behavior issues.”
Kristen McNair deals with a variety of conditions in her class at Hite Elementary in Louisville. She has been bringing students to Adventure Camp for 15 years and says her favorite part is that no one is judgmental.
“If you go to the science center, people are like, ‘What’s wrong with that kid? Why can’t she control that kid?’” she says. “You don’t have that here.”
McNair also likes that her students can all find something they enjoy. Besides fishing, boating and music, Adventure Camp offers archery, crafts, science activities and even bubble play.
The crew from Cedar Grove Elementary had done most of those activities by the time they stopped at the camp dining hall to eat. As the kids dug into their sack lunches, Kaycee Woods says the day had given her students the chance to try new things — including leadership.
“One of my students has taken on a little more of a leadership role in helping with the other kids,” Woods says. “She is loving that. Seeing her get to do that is awesome.”
A Volunteer Army
Not far from Woods’ group, a handful of camp volunteers were enjoying chili dogs served up by a Wood Badge cooking crew. Although some volunteers were Scouters, most represented groups like America’s Boating Club (formerly the United States Power Squadrons) or area companies. Louisville’s largest employer, UPS, gives workers the day off to volunteer, as does payment integrity vendor Equian LLC.
Coordinating Equian’s participation last fall was senior claims examiner Rex Toler, who says about a quarter of the company’s 300 local employees volunteer at the camp each year.
“We always choose a Thursday and Friday, and we usually bring about 20 a day,” he says.
Toler says he could bring more if somebody didn’t need to keep the business running.
“People email me and come up to my office before I send anything out, looking forward to signing up for it,” he says. “It’s really nice and refreshing to know that I don’t have to twist arms to get people to come.”
Last fall, the volunteers ranged in age from 23-year-old Alex Davis-Licthenberger to 95-year- old Oliver Thibodeau. “Tip,” as he’s known, spent the day ferrying supplies and passengers in a golf cart, something he’s been doing for 20 years.
The most senior volunteers tend to help with fishing. That station remains popular in part because the volunteers come early and catch some fish they attach to “lucky poles” that they hand over to kids who aren’t getting any nibbles. At a previous camp, one boy said the word “fish” after he used a lucky pole.
“You know what his teacher said?” fishing coordinator Ray Glass recalls. “ ‘I’ve been teaching you for almost two years, and I’ve never heard you say as many words as I heard today.’ ”
Smiles, Hugs and More
Since some of the campers are nonverbal, volunteers can’t always tell whether the campers are having a good time. Many will smile or offer hugs, but some have unique ways of expressing themselves.
Kim Fisher from America’s Boating Club vividly remembers the first time he captained one of the camp’s three pontoon boats. As soon as it left the dock, a boy with cerebral palsy began screaming loudly.
“I’m thinking, ‘What’s going on?’ But then I saw that that’s the only way he could communicate,” Fisher says. “He screamed with joy the whole way around this lake for 10 minutes.”
Moments like that make the volunteers want to come back year after year.
One More Thing: Working in Partnership
Adventure Camp relies heavily on community partners that provide financial support and volunteers. Donors include the UPS Foundation, the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, the WHAS Crusade for Children, VSA Kentucky and Dawn Foods.
The program technically costs $10 per student, which covers both the spring and fall camps and an optional in-school curriculum from Learning for Life. Most participants, however, pay little or nothing.
“We don’t want money to be a reason why kids don’t come,” says Sarah Flowers, director of camping services. “The kids that can pay, pay, and the kids that can’t, we don’t worry about it.” “There’s no reason other councils couldn’t do this,” says council board member John Combs, who was directing traffic at the fall camp. “You’ve got the infrastructure. You’ve got the volunteer base. All you need is to get a couple or three companies involved and engage the special-needs education community.”
Scout Executive Jason Pierce would also like the program to spread.
“People need to see that Scouting is reaching out in every way possible to serve as many kids as we can,” he says.
Photographs by Alton Strupp