Camp has long been a great way to engage children during the summer months, but sometimes it’s about more than the campfires, s’mores, and activities. For kids who have been dealt a hand that’s a little tougher than some, camp can be about healing, pushing for a developmental breakthrough, or just being with others who are paddling up stream in the same canoe as you.
These local families packed their bags and set out for camp together. Their experiences taught them some of the big lessons in life—the ones no family expects to learn.
Therapy for a Child. Respite for the Family.
When the Bennett family of Denver signed up for Adam’s Camp in 2010, they had heard their daughter Kaitlin, then age four, would benefit. Kaitlin was born with an undiagnosed genetic mutation that caused intellectual disability and nonverbal behavior. At camp, she would spend 30 hours a week focused on achieving goals such as walking as opposed to using a wheelchair, as well as spending time in speech therapy, music therapy, and physical therapy. What they found was the camp benefitted them all.
“I think that was the surprising part for us,” says Maureen Bennett, Kaitlin’s mother. “We really went at it with, ‘Oh this is a camp for Kaitlin. This is for Kaitlin so she can have some very focused time and intensive therapy and work on various skills.’ We were so surprised at what a wonderful time it was for all of us.”
While children with specials needs receive therapy focused on their personal goals, their siblings participate in typical summer camp activities. The parents have six hours a day where they can enjoy time away from their children, by hiking, relaxing, or having therapeutic discussions.
“It was just an astonishing experience,” says Bennett. “We made a bunch of friends, people who were kind of walking the same path with children with special needs. My daughter Kylie met other siblings of children with special needs and found a way to connect to them, (while relating) to one another and some of the experiences that they shared.”
After participating in a recent extensive genetic study called The Whole Exome Sequence, Kaitlin was finally diagnosed with a mutation called the GRIN1 gene. She is one of three people in the world who shares this specific variant.
Nearly seven years and seven summer sessions later, the Bennett family has gained not only continued support for their daughter who spent most of her life undiagnosed, but for their family too.
Healing in the Mountains
Roundup River Ranch
On April 30, 2013, eight-year-old Carter Gates of Colorado Springs was diagnosed with t-cell lymphoblastic leukemia. His chemotherapy treatment would last three years while also receiving radiation treatments that would reach his spinal fluids. While at the hospital receiving chemo, several families spoke to the Gates about a camp called the Roundup River Ranch. The camp is free of charge to the families that attend, and caters to a variety of illnesses that affect children. At first, Carter’s mother, Kelly Gates, was hesitant about taking him into the mountains when he was so sick. But after much thought, the entire family decided they needed some fun. They signed up for family camp in September of 2013.
“It was exactly what we needed. It was a weekend of fun and getting to know other families who are in the trenches with us, and our kids were with other kids like them,” Gates says. “For our daughters—we have two daughters—(it was a chance for them) to be with other siblings of kids with cancer. We met some great friends who we still are connected with. It wasn’t just that weekend, it’s carried on to relationships we still have.”
And Carter loved it too. “The way all the counselors make the kids who have been dealing with really ‘junky’ stuff smile really makes a difference,” says Carter. “The first night, I was nervous, but they really made me feel at home. They made me happy. Roundup River Ranch changed my life so much by helping kids (like me). Now I want to be a counselor just like them.”
Carter finished his last dose of oral chemo in September 2016 at Roundup River Ranch, surrounded by friends, counselors, volunteers, and family.
“We were all cheering him on as he swallowed his last dose. That was a nice ending to three and a half long years of treatment—ending it at our favorite place and his favorite place that really got him through treatment,” says Gates. “This meant the world to us—when you have an immune-compromised child and you’re able to go to a place that understands that. (A camp) that has everyone wash their hands and follows these guidelines that keep things safer than the general public—it’s everything. It’s everything to him.”
Finding Comfort After Loss
Carol Nowak of Boulder lost her husband and the father of her two children almost two years ago. At the time, her kids were five and seven. A year later, they attended Camp Comfort, a weekend-long camp founded by Sallie Wandling that is part of Mount Evans Home Health Care and Hospice. Her children received a one-to-one buddy upon arriving. The time spent with the buddy and their peers encouraged her children to open up about their loss in ways she hadn’t imagined they would. The morning of this interview, her son walked up to her and said, “Mom, I just miss Dad.” Without the therapeutic weekend at Camp Comfort, Nowak isn’t sure her son would’ve been comfortable opening up to her or anyone else.
“I’m so grateful for this camp because there are times I feel like I’m the only one. I can only imagine how (my children) feel. To go to a camp where they’re around other people who have gone through something similar, it’s just profound—and with people their age,” says Nowak.
The program offers the support, counseling, and everyday camp activities that families need to begin healing. During the closing ceremony, campers talk about the loved one they’ve lost. Several kids talk about wanting to come back someday and volunteering to be a buddy. The Nowak children have every intention of attending Camp Comfort again this summer for a second year.
“I’m sure (my kids) go to school and are like, ‘who else has lost their dad?’ For them to be around other kids who have experienced loss helps them feel like they’re going to be OK,” says Nowak.
More Unique Camps
These camps help kids with special needs or circumstances.
Rocky Mountain Village serves as a camp for children and adults with various disabilities. Campers are encouraged to participate in every activity including fishing, swimming, overnight camping, outdoor cooking, arts and crafts, day trips, hiking, sports, dancing, and more.
The Ascendigo summer program supports children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) while engaging them in outdoor activities focused on social needs, and sports and recreational activities. Located in the Roaring Fork Valley, each camper is challenged to progress in one of four core sports or activities on the river, lake, alpine, or ranch.
The summer camp program at Challenge Aspen is geared toward children with cognitive disabilities, autism, and emotional challenges. Day camps include rafting, hiking, swimming, and fishing.
Aspen Camp is the only year-round camp accessible to the deaf. Their goal is to provide a safe and exciting outdoor experience for youth and adults who are hearing impaired. Summer activities include backpacking, hiking, swimming, and ropes courses.
Outdoor Adventure Camp is based out of Boulder and geared toward children with mental health diagnoses and emotional/behavioral difficulties. Using a variety of challenging activities and field trips, the program strives to teach its campers better self-awareness and problem solving skills.