A Different Kind of Camp Story

“It is the most strenuous, disgusting, and ridiculous job, but I guess there must be something that keeps me going back,” VHS Junior Sam Garrison says with a smile. “My campers mean the world to me. It’s hard to communicate with them, but I love them and know they appreciate me.”

When she is not maxing out her credit card at the mall, ordering her classic latte from Starbucks, immersing herself in a book, or experimenting with her new eye makeup, you are likely to find Sam captivating someone with a story from camp.   But while many students have attended camps of different kinds, Sam’s experience is decidedly different.

Sam has been going to summer camp since she was five years old. In the recent years she has been traveling to Pennsylvania to attend Camp Speers-Eljabar. She began her Camp Speers experience the summer she was going into eighth grade as a regular camper for two weeks. The following year she decided to skip her last year as a camper to be in a leadership in training program, in which she attended seminars, learned leadership skills, and had a memorable overnight canoe trip down the Delaware River.

Following this, at 15, Sam became a counselor in training; which required her to spend four weeks in a program learning all areas of camp activity including kitchen work and boating, training for hikes by learning the trails, and finally, actually going on a three day hike. She describes this hike as “intense; it was crazy. You only have what you carry.” Sam looks back on the memories very intently and explains the difficulties of backpacking. In the last week of this program she got to play the role of counselor and joined a cabin.

It was in this week that Sam was asked a question that would change her camping experience for the years to come. She was asked to joining the ACCES Program, which stands for “All Campers Can Experience Speers.” This program consists of many young adults that suffer from severe disabilities. The majority of these campers, if diagnosed, have forms of Down Syndrome or Fragile X, which is the most common form of inherited intellectual disability in boys. It is a genetic condition involving changes in part of the X chromosome. A lot of these campers suffer from mental disabilities, resulting in severe physical disabilities as well.

Sam worked with a younger boys-only camp  first during the days, which consisted of boys aged 7-13. This job can often be extremely difficult, and can put Sam in challenging situations. Sam explains that may campers cannot dress, shower, or go to the bathroom on their own. Often another counselor must be present, as some of these campers may become violent. She describes one experience in which a camper got her in a headlock, and brought her to the ground. “The boys especially can become very violent,” she says.

Sam explains that she and fellow counselors try keeping special needs campers involved and doing normal things, yet they face constant issues of safety. “Sometimes, it’s nearly impossible”, she says.

Sam has also worked with older girls aged 14-21 in a special needs group. Working with campers with special needs is immensely harder and has a lot more responsibility than being a counselor for the average camper. “Not many counselors can do it,” she says, “but it’s rewarding.”

Sam is there for every part of the special needs life, 24/7, at Camp Speers. “One of the best parts is the friendships that come out of it, and the great stories,” she exclaims.  Asked for the name of a favorite camper she responds with a grin, “I love them all.”

Aside from the difficulties of counseling a group with disabilities, Sam has also worked as a counselor for a foreign group from China because she has taken Mandarin in school.

Sam is interested in working with special needs kids and adults possibly in the future. She is motivated to become the youngest ACCES director ever at the camp.

“I appreciate it when people come up to me and say, ‘I could not do what you are doing,” Sam says.