Daily Mountain Eagle - 6/10/2018
Camp COOL, a summer camp focused on young people with cerebral palsy and spina bifida, is set to end Sunday after four days of fun and fellowship.
The camp is finishing its sixth year after starting in 2013. Camp COOL (Children Overcoming Obstacles through Love) is the brainchild of Jasper native Brittany Henson, who was inspired to start the program after volunteering for several years at a similar camp in Florida that her cousin attended.
"I volunteered there from 1998 until 2012, and it was around 2003 when I first had the idea that we needed a camp like that in our area," said Henson, president of Camp COOL and a speech therapist in the Walker County school system. "There wasn't anything like that here, and our children deserved a place where they could go and have fun and interact with others."
For many of the participants, camp is the only time they are away from their caretakers. Henson said the break is good for the children and their parents.
"This gives the children a place to come and be just like any other child going to camp," she said, "and it also helps the parents get a chance to recharge for a few days."
Camp COOL offers a variety of activities to its campers, including swimming, crafts and a huge talent show. Each year, the camp also has a special theme with a night to celebrate that theme. For 2018, the theme was the circus. On Friday morning, the 15 staff members were preparing for the circus night activities later that day.
"We pack as much into the week as we can, because four days and three nights isn't a lot of time," Henson said. "This is just like any other summer camp. It is basically the same activities that any child would do at summer camp, but has been modified to fit the needs of the children who come here."
The camp is also Christian-based and has devotions for the children each day.
"We want to show the love of Christ through all that we do here," Henson added.
Campers can be between the ages of 6 and 21. There are 13 children attending the camp this year with some of those campers coming every year since 2013. The camp is free for those children to attend.
"This is a special place," 17-year-old Brittany Barton said. "I have been here all six years. I love it. It is fun. My favorite thing is pranking the boys."
Haley May is one of the older campers at age 20. She has also attended the camp each year.
"The people here are so nice," May said. "That is what I like most about camp. They don't treat us any different from anyone else. Everyone here is treated the same."
In addition to the volunteer staff, there is also a nurse on-site at all times. A physical therapist and occupational therapist also check in throughout the camp days.
Counselors are made up of area youth, ages 14 to 18. Because of the special needs of the campers, at least two counselors are required per child. Henson said finding counselors can be a difficult task.
"There are a lot of reasons for that. A lot of children that age have jobs or they have athletic practice throughout the summer. Some of them even have a fear about volunteering at the camp because they are not used to being around people with special needs," she said. "Once they are here, they find out how much they have in common with the campers. They listen to the same music; play the same games. They are able to build some great relationships with each other."
Henson said a majority of counselors this year came from the youth group at Argo First Baptist Church.
"We had spoken at their church, and they really stepped up to help us this summer," Henson said. "They have done a great job so far."
Counselors arrive almost a full day before campers, which allows the staff to train them on many aspects of how to assist the campers.
"It is a pretty rigorous training," Henson said. "This group has been as good a group as we have ever had. They have worked hard, and they have had a lot of fun, too. They have been a joy for us to work with. I hope they want to return next year."
Henson said the volunteerism can be as impactful on the counselors as the camp is for the campers.
"Our campers talk about camp 365 days per year. They love it and can't wait to come back," she said. "Our counselors are similar. All of them are usually crying on Sunday when camp is over, and many of our counselors have decided on their careers after assisting at our camp. We have had many go into physical therapy and speech therapy because of the impact that Camp COOL had on them."
Funding for the camp comes from a grant from the Walker Area Community Foundation and private donors.
"Our community has done so much for us," Henson said. "People are always willing to give or help in any way that they can. That kind of support is so important to what we do, and we are very thankful for everyone who has helped us in any way."
For more information on Camp COOL, call 205-522-9043 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The camp also has a Facebook page.