NANJEMOY, Md. - Summer camps are places where kids meet life-long friends, play sports, learn new skills and sometimes life lessons.
I spent part of a June day at Melwood's Camp Accomplish, a camp where children learn how to interact with all types of abilities and disabilities.
I talked with the campers, their parents, their counselors and the staff to get the flavor of a typical camp day.
A unique camp
Camp Accomplish is one of the only truly inclusive camps in the country, welcoming children with and without disabilities equally.
"Our main goal is that we provide an inclusive recreation experience for kids of all ability levels," says Doria Fleisher, associate director of the camp.
It's nearly split down the middle. Half the children have learning, mental or physical disabilities. The other half do not.
"Camp Accomplish really wants to include you whether you have a special need or not," Fleisher says.
Jonathon Rondeau, chief program officer at Camp Accomplish, says another interesting factor is no one is labeled.
"I think for a lot of our campers they don't even realize they're at a camp with kids with disabilities, and that's a really unique thing."
Talking to the campers, you see that's true. Kids just want to have fun.
Here's what some children told me at camp:
"This camp is amazing. We got to go canoeing and rock climbing today, and yesterday we got to play in the pool for about an hour."
"We get to play games from around the world, and I can't wait to see what fun I'm going to have today."
"I like riding the horses and going swimming."
"It's so fun and I really am having fun. We're all having like a lot of fun."
The atmosphere and fun
The camp, which opened in 1998, is tucked away in the woods of Southern Maryland, on 108 acres of land. It has lodging for overnight campers, a large equestrian center and field, a small lake for canoeing and open woods for sports such as archery. It also has a cafeteria.
Children begin each day gathered around the flagpole. They raise the flag, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and then shout out any accomplishments from the day before while snapping. It's melodic and the kids enjoy chiming in.
Campers then sing songs before breaking off into their individual groups. Those groups include cooking, sports, swimming and Pony Pal camp.
Horses named Buster, Frosty, Snickers and Ben delight the campers every day. They patiently stand as children groom them and clean their hooves. The children learn to mount, ride and even stand on the horses. Sometimes kids even get to paint the horses with wash-off paint.
Fleisher says she's seen wonderful things occur around the horses. She says one camper who used to be an accomplished equestrian became paralyzed in a car accident involving a drunken driver. When she returned to camp, she was afraid to ride the horses and said she never would. But on the final day of camp, she managed the courage to get on one of the horses.
The camp has International Week, where it celebrates different countries through foods, games and activities at the camp.
Sixty percent of the staff is international, including David Hedley from Northern Ireland. Hedley, who has an engineering degree, came to camp last year and that's when he realized his true calling was working with children. He's going back to school to study occupational therapy.
I met Hedley in the pool, where he was working with children of all levels.
"We're just having fun, making sure they get as confident as they can in the water," Hedley says.
He says each camper will strive to reach his or her own goals. He takes the approach of determination and patience.
"If they make that goal that's great, if they don't we'll work on it again tomorrow," he says.
Helen, who has autism, is one of the more outspoken and energetic campers. She's 16 and she calls herself a terrific teenager. That's not her opinion of herself. She's in a new group called Terrific Teenagers who assist other day-campers.
For Helen, that usually means taking on the role of cheerleader. You might find her chanting to get the other campers enthused or rallying them to dance in the cafeteria.
Helen, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., says she loves to swim and calls herself "the best swimmer ever." One of her other favorite activities at camp is singing in the talent show.
Options for individual families
Jennifer Muschlitz, of Lusby, Md., wanted her 5-year-old son who is autistic to go to camp, but she never imagined he'd be going to the same camp as her 6-year-old daughter, Ella.
Muschlitz describes Ella as your typical child.
Alexander has limited speech and communication, but the two siblings are enjoying their own experiences at camp.
Ella is enrolled in cooking camp. Alexander, meanwhile, is testing the waters with his own counselor, Louis, who follows his lead and takes him from activity to activity.
Muschlitz says after the first day of camp, Alexander kept saying "more play, more play." When she asked him if he wanted to go back to camp, he enthusiastically said yes.
The camp falls perfectly in line with Muschlitz's own philosophy.
"They encourage what I encourage at home. It's my belief that though I can't cure Alex, I can help him, and I want him to live in the typical world as well as possible."
I spoke with Ella briefly about her brother.
She told me, "I love him and I care about him" and she's very glad he's having fun.
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