Summer is meant for days on the lake, roasting marshmallows over bonfires for s’mores and hiking through the woods trying to avoid poison ivy.
Summer is also for making memories volunteering and working at summer camps like Camp ReYoAd and Bradford Woods, which offer unique summer experiences for campers with special needs.
“What has always blown me away about this is that we get to work with kids in an environment that is built for them,” said Maclaine Leaird, senior English education major. “When we need to freshen up, we can do that in any bathroom. When we go to the lake, we can walk on special mats placed to help us get across the sand. When we want to go for a walk in the woods, we can walk along paths that are accessible to any needs. It is created to be an oasis for everyone.”
Ball State graduate student Molly Boylan and senior nursing major Emma Sullivan both volunteer each summer at Camp ReYoAd, which stands for Remarkable Youth and Adults.
The week-long camp held at Epworth Forest Conference Center in North Webster, Indiana, caters to people aged 16 and older with special needs.
While the camp is faith-based, religion is not required. For more than 50 years, volunteers and campers alike have come together to celebrate the experience of summer camp with a variety of religious backgrounds through fellowship, boating, crafts, games and more.
“What I enjoy about ReYoAd is that it gives us an opportunity to connect with people we might normally overlook,” Boylan said. “I feel it normalizes interaction with individuals who have cognitive disabilities, which is crucial to creating an inclusive everyday environment.”
Both Boylan, who has volunteered for seven years, and Sullivan, who has volunteered for six years, plan to return again this summer to make memories and learn life lessons.
“I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that little things don’t matter,” Sullivan said. “It doesn’t matter what you wear, or if your hair is messy. What matters is the people we have around us, and the love we have to spread.”
While Camp ReYoAd is in northern Indiana, Bradford Woods offers similar volunteer and attendee options in southern part of the state.
Each summer, Bradford Woods hosts multiple camps designed specifically for campers with special needs — including Camp About Face, for people aged 8-18 with craniofacial anomalies, and Camp Independence, for those aged 8-18 with sickle cell anemia and other blood diseases and Hi-Lite, for children who have Down syndrome.
Last year, seven Ball State students worked the entire summer at Bradford Woods. A few additional students volunteered during particular camp sessions at Bradford Woods, such as Kan Du, a medically-intensive camp for youths with a developmental age of 0-48 months.
Leaird said she will be returning to Bradford Woods in a few weeks, marking her fourth summer on the staff.
During her time, Leaird has served as a lifeguard, cabin counselor, waterfront director and logistics coordinator on Bradford Woods’ leadership team.
“Bradford Woods is important to me because it is a place where everyone who comes gets to experience the magic. Campers and staff push beyond the limits that they themselves have placed, or the world has placed on them,” Leaird said. “Everyone gets to climb, zipline, hike, swim, get to know who they are in an environment that accepts all differences.”
Another returning Bradford Woods volunteer is junior nursing major Mary Blanke, who heard about the camp from senior Liz Hynes. After Hynes connected Blanke with senior Adrienne Jones — who told Blanke about “the magic of the woods” — Blanke said she was hooked.
For her second summer, Blanke will participate as a cabin head.
“Bradford Woods holds the most special place in my heart,” Blanke said. “Whenever I’m having a bad day or feel sad about anything, I just go back and look through my thousands of pictures and videos from the summer, and I immediately get the biggest smile on my face.”
Both Camp ReYoAd and Bradford Woods provide a space where people can “unapologetically be themselves.”
“It’s so important to empower these children because they need to know just how incredible each and every one of them is,” Blanke said. “At camp, they’re able to hang out with kids who relate to them and a staff who loves them. They are given this safe space that enables them to thrive and overcome challenges they would’ve never thought possible.”
Through planned activities, games, friendship and reflection, each camper, camp counselor and volunteer leaves with new lifelong lessons.
“I try to bring camp into everything I do. Every single person you come into contact with has a different set of abilities than the other,”Leaird said. “We all deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. We all deserve the opportunity to try new things, to explore the world, and to make friends. We all communicate a little differently and if you slow down just a second, you’ll be surprised by all that you learn.”
Contact Kiera Helm with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.