At first glance, it looks like any other children’s camp, with kids of all ages swimming, playing softball, walking on nature trails, working on art projects and fishing at a pond.
But this is no ordinary camp.
Situated on 86 acres in the Helderberg Mountains at the former Altamont Rod and Gun Club, this is Camp Wildwood, the summer extension program for children with developmental disabilities. Some of the children are able to speak, others are nonverbal.
“If Camp Wildwood didn’t exist, these kids wouldn’t have a camp experience,” said Kathy Lewek, program site coordinator. “First and foremost, we still operate as a school during the summer, even though it’s in an outdoor camp facility.”
The students work on speech and language, math and reading and receive physical therapy, occupational therapy and social work services during the summer program.
“It doesn’t look like a true classroom,” Lewek explained. “But the students still have the opportunity to continue to develop their academic, social and behavioral skills during the summer within an outdoor environment.”
The 30-year-old camp, which runs from early July through mid-August, features a swimming pool, nature trails, playgrounds, softball field, covered pavilions, cabins and a mail lodge, which functions as the camp’s headquarters.
The 140 students come from Wildwood School on Curry Road Extension and from school district referrals.
“Most often when you think of a summer school, you think of classrooms in a school building,” said Lewek. “So our kids get to go to camp, as well as be in school.”
Besides their academic lessons, the kids, ranging in age from 3 to 21, swim, play softball, receive art and music therapy and learn about nature.
They also have one overnight stay where they pitch tents, roast marshmallows and just have fun.
“It’s really a nice opportunity for our kids and families to have a child spend the night away from home — maybe for the first time,” said Lewek.
Some of the Camp Wildwood staff are from Wildwood School. Others are from various school districts.
Mark Giufre, a teacher, said the kids work on the same goals they work on during the regular school year, except they do it in a camp environment.
“Each child has summer maintenance goals they focus on during class time, so there is a combination of academic and camp time,” said Giufre.
Swimming and art
Brian Melanson, head swimming instructor, has been teaching at the camp for 10 years.
“I keep coming back because it’s such a great program,” said Melanson, who works as a physical education teacher and coach for the Schenectady School District during the regular school year.
“To have a summer program where these kids can learn so many things, including a chance to learn to swim, is just wonderful.”
Melanson said most of the kids enjoy the water.
“A lot of these kids who may have difficulties elsewhere perform really well at the pool,” said Melanson. “It really builds their self-confidence.”
Teaching students who are developmentally disabled is no more difficult than teaching traditional kids, said Melanson.
Dave Ahola, art teacher, said he tries to encourage the children’s creativity.
“The No. 1 goal is to make things they can feel proud of to help their self-esteem,” said Ahola. “We work on open-ended projects that allow for a wide range of abilities. They find their own solutions to the projects they are working on. That’s what is so great about art. There is no one specific way to do an art project.”
On a recent morning, a group of about eight children were decorating small white boxes with stickers.
Tyler Dornsife, 12, decorated his box with a dog, a hippopotamus, a whale and a bear because he likes animals.
“I like to go swimming and everything,” said Tyler. “I can swim. I like to go frog hunting at the pond. I found a snake at the pond. I picked it up. It felt slimy — so I put it down. After I catch frogs, I let them go.”
At the pond, Andrew Eggers, 8, said he liked to go fishing. “I haven’t caught any fish,” said Andrew. “But my favorite thing to do is play tag with kids on the playground.”
Kris McCabe, 7, said he liked swimming the best.
“I like free swim on Fridays because I can swim faster than my friends,” said Kris. “I like to go out in the boat and feed the fish. I like doing Lincoln Logs in art.”
At the swimming pool, 15-year-old Jacob Lounsbury and several other teenage boys cheered each other on to do cannonballs into the pool.
“I like swimming and hanging out with my friends and my girlfriend at the pool,” said Jacob.
Nick Santini, 6, said he liked swimming and going to the pond the best.
“I like catching frogs in the pond and all that stuff,” said Nick. “I like to go swimming, too, because I get to splash my teachers. You take a noodle and blow one side, and water comes out the other side. It’s fun.”
At the softball field, 10-year-old Michael Sevey was up to bat.
“Come on Mike, hit a home run,” shouts came from the dugout.
“Good job, run” the bullpen shouted, when Michael slammed the ball and got a home run.
“Baseball is fun,” said Michael. “I like camp.”
Mimi O’Connor, physical therapy assistant, said the kids thrive at Camp Wildwood.
“We still provide all their needs. However, it’s in a much more recreational, open setting with no doors and lots of fun,” said O’Connor. “They love being outdoors and seeing nature. It’s a much more relaxed atmosphere.”
GAZETTE COVERAGEEnsure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out our subscribe page at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe
More from The Daily Gazette:
Categories: Life and Arts