Philip Bouyer, 11, gets a ride around Camp Maria in the sidecar of motorcyclist Don “Fuzzy” Warren of Dundalk as the Baltimore Metro Harley-Davidson Chapter visited the Muscular Dystrophy Association Camp on Wednesday to offer rides.
When she was 10, and preparing for a summer camp vacation at Camp Maria Retreat Center on Breton Bay, Claire Menke was a bit apprehensive about an extended trip away from family, friends and the familiar scenery of home.
“I was a bit of a mama’s girl,” said Menke of Middletown, now 15. “Now, not so much. I was a little scared because it was my first time away from home for a long period of time. My first two years, I called home every night. But, you learn to adjust.”
Menke has attended MDA Camp at Camp Maria every summer since, except for last year. In 2009, MDA Camp was canceled due to concerns about the H1N1 flu virus. For Menke, the camp provides a welcome change from the routine of life.
From last Sunday through tomorrow, Saturday, Camp Maria is hosting 57 campers with neuromuscular diseases for horseback riding, magic shows, K-9 demonstrations, pinewood derby competitions, dances, campfires and other activities many kids take for granted. The children, ages 6 to 17, come from all across the state.
“Sunday is a blur. Monday and Tuesday we’re bonding. Wednesdays, we let them wander off, a little,” says camp counselor Dennis Style, a postal worker from Baltimore and a volunteer at the camp since 1997. “After the first day you don’t see the disability, you just see the person.”
“At home I don’t really get out much, aside from school,” Menke said. “But camp is a very wide-open place for kids with challenges, or without challenges. It’s very accessible.”
For many MDA campers, this may be the only week of the year to relax and be seen as an individual, instead of as a person with a disability. There are all sorts of activities available, from scavenger hunts and crafts projects to a wheelchair-based football game created by a former camper. They fish, crab, ride ponies or motorcycles or just enjoy the scenery and relaxed atmosphere at Camp Maria.
“We let them gravitate toward what they’re interested in,” Style said. “We try not to push, just encourage.”
Each camper is paired with a volunteer camp counselor who stays with them for the entire week. There are also several “floating” counselors, available to give the volunteers a break when they need it. Many of the 60 counselors who worked at MDA Camp this year are returning volunteers.
“The counselors get so much more out of it than the kids do,” said Rachel Lewkowicz, the camp’s director. “For the kids, it’s the best week of the year, and for the counselors it’s the best week of their year, too. It’s a little, happy bubble.”
Angela Penn has volunteered as a counselor every summer for the past 35 years. She first heard about MDA Camp from a radio ad recruiting volunteers.
“I had already chosen my vacation week,” and it was the week MDA Camp was scheduled to need volunteers, Penn said. Though she first got involved out of a desire to help children, Penn has found that the camp benefits her, too.
“It’s an incredible experience. It doesn’t matter how much money you make or what you do for a living,” Penn said. “All that superficial, you leave it [at home]. It’s been a blessing.”
The counselors are trained to keep the children healthy and safe and then get out of the way so the campers can have a good time. The camp also has an all-volunteer MAC team: medical and activity coordinators include a doctor, nurse, physical and respiratory therapists and a lifeguard. Having a fully qualified staff and abundant counselors helps parents feel comfortable about sending their children to camp far from home.
“For some parents, this is the only week of vacation they get in a year, and a break to be with their other kids. It’s just as special for them,” Lewkowicz said. She and other MDA Camp staff reassure parents that though everyday life is full of challenges, Camp Maria’s MDA Camp is different.
“Let us have them. We know how to handle them here. We’re safe here. Go take a breather.”
Joe and Racquel Calvert of Baltimore County came to Camp Maria for a special visitors day with their 5-year-old daughter, Olivia, who will attend the camp next summer. The Calverts were impressed with the facility, the staff and the air of camaraderie among campers and counselors. For their family, the prospect of a week’s safe haven — in a place that focuses on fun — can give hope for the whole year.
“As a parent, you want to give your kids the best possible experience, and sometimes no amount of money can do that,” Joe Calvert said. “But here, with all these kids, the disability doesn’t even matter.”