published Friday, September 9th, 2011

Weekend camp offers fun for special-needs children, experience for UTC students

Assisted by camp counselor Dustin Sharp, McClain Shaw celebrates after making a bulls-eye in archery at Camp Horizon, a two-day camp for physically challenged children at Camp Lookout.
Assisted by camp counselor Dustin Sharp, McClain Shaw celebrates after making a bulls-eye in archery at Camp Horizon, a two-day camp for physically challenged children at Camp Lookout.
Photo by John Rawlston.

On a warm Sunday afternoon in Rising Fawn, Ga., Camp Lookout is a beehive of activity.

Several motorized chairs are gathered around a picnic table as children complete an art project. Just up the hill, on a concrete basketball court, a boy in a wheelchair tunes up his game. Meanwhile, in an adjacent pavilion, several children learn archery. And in a nearby building, variously abled children practice their moves for an exotic dance.

The end of a weekend filled with activities is rapidly drawing near, but nobody wants to go home.

Camp Horizon, held annually at the United Methodist Church's Camp Lookout, allows physically disabled children to spend two days doing the things -- with one-on-one assistance -- many other children take for granted.

"It's definitely an exhausting weekend," says Lindsey Sharpe, a physical therapist at Children's Hospital at Erlanger, who started the camp with her husband, Steven, in 2005, "but [the children] get so much out of it.

"The campers all year long say they can't wait for [it], and the parents come back and say their child hasn't stopped talking about camp. That means a lot to me. And if we can bring that joy, that experience, to kids who have never had that opportunity, then it's worth all the hard work."

The nonprofit camp is offered at no cost, said Mr. Sharpe. Fundraising, corporate sponsorships and other donors cover the approximate $300 cost per camper.

"We wanted to do it at no cost," he said. "It's a recreation opportunity for the kids. We did not want it to be an additional burden [for the parents], even if it was $50 or $100."

The Sharpes started the camp, they said, with 11 campers and only friends as staff members. It's grown every year, they said, but is about to reach its accommodations limit.

This year's camp, the only one of its kind in the area, assembled 85 people, which included 29 campers, 37 University of Tennessee at Chattanooga physical-therapy students and 19 staff members and their children.

MAKING CONNECTIONS

There's something about being so close to the water in a canoe that brings out the mischievousness in friends.

Nevertheless, Rachel Cannon, a student at LaFayette (Ga.) High School, talked about her experience on the camp's small lake with a shy smile.

"I told everyone not to splash," she said.

Rachel, 18, who has cerebral palsy and normally navigates via a motorized chair, believes she has just missed one Horizon Camp since it began but now has "aged out."

Fresh from horseback riding, swimming and making candles, she is particularly excited about having tackled the low ropes course.

Rachel said Camp Horizon is more than just an opportunity to participate in activities she normally can't do.

"It gives me a chance to get away from the house," she said, "and give my family a break from me."

Rachel said she also meets other children who share her disability, "so we connect and encourage each other."

Laura Ann Risley, 7, meanwhile, is attending her first Camp Horizon. She, too, has endured the good-natured splashing in a canoe and has ridden a horse.

But a certain water-balloon activity involving her one-one-one counselor has her giggling a bit.

"I squeezed it above her head," the Fairyland Elementary student said.

TRAINING GROUND

Erin Liedle, a third-year physical-therapy student at UTC, was finishing her first weekend as a Camp Horizon counselor.

The camp, she said, requires each student to "be responsible for ensuring [each camper] had fun." But at that, she said, it offers her and her fellow students a break from the rigorous academic requirements of their chosen major.

"We were all looking forward to it," Liedel said. "It's provided us so much education [and] mentoring. It lets us use the skills we've been given to give back."

Better than that, she said, is watching some campers begin the weekend with a shell and shed it as they go along.

"To see the joy on these kids' faces makes you keep things in perspective," Leidle said. "To see the way they're smiling, laughing and developing bonds, that's priceless."

Mrs. Sharpe said the experience for the physical-therapy students is also valuable for their futures.

"The camps couldn't happen without the PT students," she said. "As [therapists], we treat them and send them home. We usually don't have any idea what it takes to be the parent of a child with special needs. This gives the students a deeper appreciation and understanding of what is involved."

LIKE EVERYONE ELSE

By attending Camp Horizon, McClain Shaw, at 6, did something his older brother had never done.

"This was his first spend-the-night camp," mom Alison Shaw said of the Normal Park Museum Magnet School student.

He was most excited about archery, she said.

"He's never arched," offered big brother, Morgan.

"He was excited about being in this atmosphere with other kids," his mother added.

Jordyn Miller, meanwhile, was attending her third camp, her mom said.

It's an ideal situation for her daughter, Joey Miller said, because the presence of the physical-therapy students puts the minds of her and her husband, Tommy, at ease.

"You can't leave children with muscular dystrophy with just anybody," she said. "With a one-on-one buddy, they take care of whatever [the camper] needs in our place."

Mr. Sharpe said some children, like McClain, have never spent the night away from home and some have never gotten away from their primary caregiver.

"This is something big," he said, and can lead to a "change in attitude and in their interactions with other kids. They get to play together and interact and see if there's anything else out there in the world."

Indeed, Mrs. Sharpe said special-needs students may not have a lot of social interaction at school or at home.

"Here, they get to be part of the group like everyone else," she said. "That means a lot to them. As they're getting older, they become more self-conscious. Here, they see they're not alone, that there are other kids going through the same thing. And that carries over past the camp."

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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