Imagine a place where authenticity is encouraged, and individuality is celebrated—a place that is devoid of judgment and discrimination.
On Marco Island that place exists in the form of Camp Able, a weeklong summer camp designed specifically for people living with intellectual, developmental, or physical disabilities, such as Down syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy. The annual camp, now in its 12th year, focuses on the campers’ “diversabilities” as opposed to their disabilities and has grown to six locations across the southern United States.
Last week, nearly 120 volunteers transformed the St. Mark’s Episcopal Church campus into a magical, space-themed wonderland. Numerous volunteers were returning from previous years, a common theme for many. For some, Camp Able has become an integral part of their lives, influencing their chosen professions and lifestyle.
“I’ve been with Camp Able for seven years. I love it! This summer, Samantha and I are doing four camps total. Marco marks our third one this summer,” says Casey Johnson, recent education graduate of the University of Central Florida. “I start teaching Special Education in the fall.”
Following a two-day staff training and transformation, the Marco Island campus was ready for Wednesday’s arrivals, 53 campers in all. Upbeat music played, as staffers warmly welcomed and cheered each arrival, making the transition smooth for even the most apprehensive campers. Following registration, campers were immersed into an array of activities, projects, and crafts.
“It’s all about building relationships. It’s hard to tell who a camper is and who is on staff,” explains a devoted Chris Vignes, who recently drove a 15-passenger van with campers and staffers from Mississippi. “This is how I spend my week vacation every year. It’s the best week of the year. I wouldn’t miss it!”
Throughout camp, mornings are filled with excursions varying from attending yoga classes, swimming, paddle boarding, biking, kayaking, snorkeling, and even a pampering session of manicures and pedicures. Afternoons are spent at the St. Mark’s campus enjoying waterslides, wading pools, water balloon fights, crafts, and sing-alongs. A dance was held on Thursday night and included some unexpected fun.
“Our dance was interrupted when the DJ’s fog machine set off the fire alarm. We moved our party from the indoors to the outdoors when the dance party was moved to the front lawn. Nothing could put a dampener on our fun. In typical Camp Able fashion, we rolled with it and embraced it. The campers got to check out the firetrucks and pose for photos with the Marco firemen,” laughs six-year volunteer, Kirby Barkley.
Saturday night, as “Ziggy Stardust” played, the campers and counselors paraded into an electric, packed, cheering sanctuary to begin the talent show where every camper performed a talent. Talents included: opening prayer, singing, dancing, magic tricks, and an antiques road show.
“They just put all their fears aside and just let it go. They have all become such good friends with their counselors that they can perform without the fear of judgment. Some campers have been excited about this night all week long,” explains a smiling John Karcher, long-time Camp Able volunteer.
“I’ve been doing camp for 11 years. Camp Able has been such a blessing in my life,” beams Ellie Bennett, 19-year-old daughter of founder Father Kyle Bennett who started Camp Able in 2006 with eight campers. According to Father Kyle, he wanted to create a space where people with special needs were treated with “dignity-driven love.” Though Father Kyle has moved back to Mississippi, his 26-year-old daughter Callie has taken over the reins as director of the Marco Island Camp Able.
Camp Able concluded on Sunday with a closing ceremony in the St. Mark’s sanctuary, where it was once again filled with cheering, happy tears, and lots of hugs.