By Noelle H. Lowery
Schaeffer McHenry, Ellie Bennett, Gage Wheeler and Mary Evelyn Webb could not be more different. McHenry is a junior at the Air force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO; Webb is a Mississippi native who attends the University of Mississippi. Bennett and Wheeler both attend Lely High School. Bennett is a bubbly, talkative junior, and Wheeler is a senior, quiet and a young man of few words.
The one thing these four have in common: A special connection with people who have special needs. McHenry’s 23-year-old cousin, Sara, has Down Syndrome. Webb’s mother suffers from Huntington’s Disease, and Wheeler’s older brother, David, is Autistic. Bennett has been working with the disabled since before she was born.
It is this commonality that brought these individuals together as camp counselors at Camp Able 2014, a summer camp focused on people with special needs and hosted for the second year in a row by the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida and St. Marks Episcopal Church on Marco Island, July 16-20. Campers’ special needs included Down Syndrome, Autism and Cerebral Palsy.
Bennett, who is the daughter of St. Marks Rev. Kyle Bennett, summed up the experience for all four counselors best: “Camp Able has made a major difference in my life. I do not take things for granted. This is my permanent thing to come back to. I always have this to look forward to when everything is going wrong.”
“I love all of it,” she added. “I love doing this. It is amazing.”
From Camp Able’s humble beginnings at DaySpring Episcopal Conference Center in Parrish, FL, eight years ago, Father Kyle has been the driving force behind the camp. His work with the disabled began while he was in college in the 1980s. After his first summer at Camp Bratton-Green in Canton, MS, he was hooked, and with the blessing of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, he launched Camp Able.
During the five-day camp, special needs campers ranging in age from 7 to 43 and about 100 counselors enjoyed the sun, sand, water and wildlife of Marco Island through the camp’s theme — “Wonderland.” The theme was alive and well during arrival day, when counselors dressed as characters from “Alice in Wonderland.” Alice, the Mad Hatter, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and even the Queen of Hearts were on hand to welcome campers and help them settle in.
Each day from 9-11:30 AM campers chose from a laundry list of activities in which to participate — everything from boat rides, fishing trips, paddle boarding and kayaking to scuba diving, mini-golf and bike rides. The camp’s activities culminated in a special all-camper talent show event on Saturday, July 19, and closed with a special worship service at St. Marks on Sunday, July 20.
The focus of the camp is on abilities, pushing both camper and counselor to do more and be more than they ever thought possible. While the campers are expanding their comfort zones by being away from family (some for the first time) and engaging in new activities, counselors are reaching out and connecting with a group of people who spend most of their lives being marginalized. In some cases, counselors even help campers with daily personal hygiene tasks.
And the ramifications of these experiences for the counselors have proven unexpectedly rich. Take McHenry. Prior to graduating from Gulf Coast High School in Naples, she started a program called the Friendship Circle that provided the opportunity for all students including those with special needs to meet on a weekly basis in a social setting. She also passed her enthusiasm for working with those with special needs on to her younger sisters, Kate and Emma, both of whom were counselors at Camp Able 2014.
McHenry’s summer break from the Air Force Academy is just three short weeks, but after having to take last year off because of Basic Training, she knew she had to return to Camp Able. “I can’t live without it really,” she said. “It is the one week where nothing else mattered. It is as much a camp experience for me as it is for the campers. I feel like I am at camp too.”
Bennett embraces the challenges that come with being a counselor at Camp Able. “All of it is a challenge, but they are all good challenges to put in front of you,” she said. Bennett’s experiences of working with the disabled resulted in her starting a group at Lely called Helping Hands. For the last two years, the group has met once a week during lunch to talk and play games, encouraging students to interact with students with disabilities. It worked; seven of Camp Able’s counselors are members of Helping Hands.
For Webb, the fruits of her journey have been especially sweet. When Webb was in eighth grade, her mother was struck with Huntington’s Disease, and went to live in a nursing home. The situation was just too much for Webb. “I was very selfish,” she remembered. “I didn’t want to be around (my mom). I thought she was dead to me. She was dead, and this was just her body.”
Then she started working at the same special needs camp — Camp Bratton-Green — Father Kyle worked at in college. “My whole outlook on people has completely changed since I started working with people with special needs. There are not really words for it. It has been life changing, amazing,” Webb said.
She noted the turning point during one of her first nights at Camp Bratton-Green: “One night, my camper was having a hard time. She was homesick and crying. I sat with her, and she looked at me and said, ‘Mary Evelyn, I love you.’ I knew at that moment that this was where I was supposed to be.”
That experience led her to Camp Able four years ago, and it also led her to re-examine her relationship with her mother. While there is no cure for Huntington’s Disease and her mother’s condition and symptoms worsen each year, Webb is no longer embarrassed by it; she now is her mother’s biggest champion.
“As (the Huntington’s) has gotten worse, I have gotten better,” she explained. “Now, she is my mom again, and we hang out and sing songs together. My whole world was completely changed when I came to Camp Able…It is the most rewarding thing I do.”