Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

June 26, 2013

Camp Riley helps Kokomo teen overcome physical disabilities

BY Lindsey Ziliak Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Three years ago Heather Warner dropped her scared 14-year-old off at summer camp in Bloomington.

“I pretty much told her she was going,” Warner said with a laugh.

She tried to get Cassidy to go years before. It would be the opportunity of a lifetime for her daughter. The girl wasn’t interested.

Warner admitted she had her own reservations at first. She’s not really comfortable leaving Cassidy in anyone else’s care. Her daughter, now 16, has a severe disability that affects her ability to communicate and move around.

Most of her life, Cassidy and her family thought summer camp was out of the question. Then they found out about Camp Riley.

For 58 years, the Riley Children’s Foundation has been providing a traditional camp experience to children with physical disabilities.

Since 1955, 12,000 children have called Camp Riley their home away from home. This year, the camp will host 223 campers from 57 Indiana counties and seven states.

Cassidy will be among them.

Only this time the Kokomo teen won’t be afraid.

By the end of that first camp three years ago, she had fallen in love with it, her mom said.

“She didn’t want to come home yet,” she said.

Warner said there were horses and camp songs and lakes with pontoon boats that campers went out on. There was swimming and even a zip line that Cassidy rode through the trees.

There was a sensory cave with lights and a pit of stuffed animals she could lie in. There was even adaptive equipment that would have allowed Cassidy, who is confined to a wheelchair, to climb a rock tower. She hasn’t chosen to do that yet, her mother said.

The goal is to help campers do those things they never thought they’d be able to.

“They’re empowered to take those leaps and shatter perceived limitations,” said Jason Mueller, with Riley Children’s Foundation. “The goals they accomplish lead to a higher self-confidence.”

Camp staffers hold a challenge day during each camp session. Campers are encouraged to tackle a task they’ve always wanted to try. Many of them choose things they thought they couldn’t do.

Some choose to complete an art project or cook dinner. Some climb the 40-foot climbing tower or “cardiac hill.”

One camper chose to hold his own Indy 500. He rode 500 laps in an adapted bike.

“There’s a lot of smiles that day,” Mueller said. “There’s a great team atmosphere.”

And the staff-to-camper ratio never exceeds one-to-three. Cassidy’s group, made up of campers with the most severe disabilities, gets one-on-one attention. There’s also trained medical staff available 24 hours a day since the camp is an extension of Riley Hospital.

That’s important to Warner. She wouldn’t have sent Cassidy to camp that first year without the medical staff there.

“That’s the first time we let her go anywhere without a family member,” Warner said.

That time away from family was something Cassidy needed, she said. It was good to give her a break from her 5-year-old brother. And for once she didn’t have to worry about her mother hovering over her, Warner said with a laugh.

“She loves having her independence a little bit,” Warner said.

Cassidy also enjoys spending time with kids who go through some of her same struggles, her mom said.

Other campers have said similar things. Camp Riley provides testimonials on its website.

Suanne Jeffries said, “The thing I remember most is the feeling I got from being around other kids who all shared feelings of insecurity, self-doubt and shame. For two weeks in the summer, we could all feel like we were just ‘normal’ kids. We were accepted, we excelled, we were cared for and cared about.”

Mueller said no child in need is ever turned away from the camp.

Warner said her daughter loves everything about it and will continue going every year until she turns 18 and is no longer eligible.

The Kokomo mom said she was worried she hadn’t made the right choice when she sent Cassidy to Camp Riley for the first time. She thought about all the things that could have gone wrong, but they didn’t.

And the camp has been a blessing for the family ever since, she said.

“This would probably be the only camp she could go to,” Warner said. “I’m really glad I [sent her.]”

Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at lindsey.ziliak@kokomotribune.com