A vision that began as part of a self-directed study at Texas A&M University by Sterling Leija ’03 has now served more than 550 children with disabilities throughout Texas.
Leija’s vision, Camp LIFE, a fully supported camp for children with disabilities, is now in its seventh year of operation. In less than a month, another set of eager campers will embark on a fun-filled weekend at Camp LIFE.
“During my time as a student at Texas A&M, I realized that camping opportunities for children with severe and multiple disabilities was limited in the local community,” said Leija. “Through my experiences volunteering at Camp CAMP in San Antonio since the age of 14, I understood the value of the camp experience and wanted to pass that on to local families who have children with special needs.”
Held twice a year at the barrier free facilities of Camp For All in Burton, Texas, Camp LIFE provides recreation for children with disabilities and their siblings. An acronym for Leadership, Independence and Friends through Experiences, the name identifies the foundation of what kids learn while at camp.
“At Camp LIFE, campers become leaders, gain great strides of independence, develop true friendships and have new experiences,” said Amy Sharp, director of the Family Support Network at Texas A&M, who worked with Leija and Camp For All to found Camp LIFE in 2004.
Camp LIFE gives campers the choice to participate in every activity you would see at any other traditional camp. Campers can experience horseback riding, fishing, archery, the zip line and rope course activities, as well as a petting zoo, canoeing, dancing and even karaoke.
“Seeing the kids try new activities and succeed is always fun,” said Leija. “We have campers who tell you they cannot do an activity because of their disability, and the look of excitement when they realize they actually can is thrilling. At Camp LIFE, we focus on what kids can do, not what they cannot do.”
The camp is staffed by pre-service special education students at Texas A&M who have the rare opportunity to experience a weekend supporting children like those they will one day serve in the classroom.
Amber Nortman ’13, a junior special education major, will make her fourth appearance at Camp LIFE as a counselor in April.
“I love Camp LIFE because it gives kids who might not have the opportunity to enjoy normal and fun camp activities a chance to experience them,” said Nortman. “The environment is completely inclusive, so you never have to worry about them not being able to do something or feeling different than their peers.”
Availability of a one-to-one counselor to camper ratio ensures that each camper with a disability receives the support he or she needs to fully participate in all activities. Additionally, sibling campers enjoy an extra dose of attention not always available to them when their parents are understandably busy caring for their child who has special needs.
“I enjoy seeing the look of relaxation on parents’ faces as they drop their camper off, knowing they are off-duty for a whole weekend,” said Leija. “I love meeting campers who have never spent a night away from their parents before, and sometimes these campers are teenagers. These teens need an interruption from daily life just as much as their parents need downtime from their role as caregiver.”
Heather Moutray’s 8-year-old son Colin attended Camp LIFE for the first time last fall and will be returning next month.
Moutray admits she was initially nervous about Colin’s first overnight experience, but after seeing the grounds and meeting his counselor, she knew he was in good hands.
“I didn’t worry about him that weekend, and while I missed my son, he was at camp getting one-on-one attention,” said Moutray. “This allowed my husband and I some time to give our daughter special attention, which she loved and needed.”
To Moutray’s surprise, Colin conquered his fear of heights during his first stay at Camp LIFE, climbing the rock wall and zip lining down.
“Colin’s experience at Camp LIFE made him feel like he could take on the world – one rock wall at a time – and experience success, just like everyone else,” said Moutray. “As a parent, that’s the biggest gift of this experience, to see my child come home confident, happy and knowing that he can meet challenges head on, and experience victory.”
The welcoming environment and the highly individualized attention each child receives during their stay keeps campers like Colin coming back year after year.
After all, at Camp LIFE, children with disabilities get the chance to just be…kids.
About the Family Support Network: The Family Support Network at Texas A&M University is a resource center for families in the Brazos Valley who have children with disabilities and who come together to learn about disability issues and share information. The Family Support Network’s goal is to help families obtain the information, support and skills needed to make informed decisions. Camp LIFE is supported by the Family Support Network, a project of the Center on Disability and Development at Texas A&M. Parents and caregivers interested in finding out more information about Camp LIFE can visit here. To donate to Camp LIFE, contact Amy Sharp, director of the Family Support Network, at 979-845-4612.