Three New Sports!
Camp Abilities is an educational sports camp for children who are visually impaired, blind, or deafblind. Camp Abilities opened its first camp on the campus of SUNY in Brockport, New York in 1996. One of the most exciting aspects of Camp Abilities is the one-to-one counselor to camper ratio. Each camper is given individual attention and encouragement.
The camp has since grown to twenty-six states and eight countries. One of those camps is in Starke, Florida, and is directed by Jennifer Stelmach. Seven years ago, Jennifer Stelmach was a student at Florida State University when she was invited to be a counselor at the flagship Camp Abilities in NY. It was a life changing experience. She watched the campers try and excel. She watched kids play with other kids like them. Almost immediately she realized that children who are visually impaired had no opportunity for camp in her home state.
Camp Abilities Florida’s first camp had six campers. Today they have twenty-two and an ever-growing waiting list. The kids arrive on a Saturday and stay until Tuesday at the Montgomery Center where they stay in dorm rooms like all the other kids’ camps around the US. Montgomery Center has three lakes, and the kids are taught to kayak and paddle board on the crystal waters. On the field, the kids play 5-a-side soccer and beep baseball. At night they have campfires and talent shows, board games and dance parties. Jennifer intentionally creates a “traditional summer camp experience.”
In 2019, The Foreseeable Future Foundation awarded Camp Abilities Florida $2500. Jennifer wasted no time allocating that money to the kids. She added rock climbing, archery, and a bounce house obstacle course to the activity schedule.
Running A Sports Camp
Jennifer was just 23 when she decided to start Camp Abilities in Florida. As she said, “The first year was rough.” Their $3000 budget was achieved only through “begging and pleading” and the parent’s willingness to pay a $200 fee. But the goal is for campers to attend Camp Abilities free of charge. Little Legend Foundation and the local Johnson & Johnson became fundraising partners. By the second season, Camp Abilities Florida was able to host 15 campers without a fee. Year three they increased to 22 and it has remained full every season since.
“We need at least three more camps in Florida,” Jennifer said. “Some of the kids drive over 200 miles and many kids in the state are unable to even consider the trip. We already have to use a lottery system and I hate I have to tell kids they can’t come.” She sighed and added, “Actually, we need more camps everywhere. Kids deserve the chance to have a camp experience with other kids like them. That’s what I hear most often – that Camp Abilities is a place to be with kids who understand each other. A camp that forces them out of their comfort zone and into success.”
Running a Camp Abilities is time consuming. Jennifer and her staff make the meals, plan the week, run the activities, communicate with parents, train counselors, raise funds, maintain the website and then stay up all hours bonding with kids. When I asked her why she does it, she said, “Their reactions! To watch these kids succeed at something new. Some kids walk in here scared of the water. I get that, I really do. But we get them in the water and they love it.”
One of Jennifer’s roles is to help parents feel comfortable sending their kids to an overnight sports camp. To help with this, she offers a shorter overnight camping experience and a one-day surfing school. Also, she is available twenty-four hours a day during camp. “I remind them that all the campers have a dedicated counselor. But the best thing to do is introduce a reluctant parent to a seasoned one.”
Camp Abilities is about so much more than sports. Campers are taught to speak up for themselves. They are taught to become more independent. “We elevate the level of expectation. We expect the campers to take care of themselves and their property. If that means teaching a camper how to put toothpaste on the toothbrush, that’s what we do. If it means asking a camper to apply their own sunscreen, that’s what we do. There is no reason they can’t manage these things with practice.”
April started camp at the age of thirteen. April was the only visually impaired child at her school and she was subjected to intense bullying. She came to camp shy and afraid. But at Camp Abilities she wasn’t alone anymore. She wasn’t bullied or ostracized. She was accepted for the wonderful person she is. When April was about to age out of Camp Abilities, Jennifer approached her about staying on as a Counselor-In-Training.
Camp Abilities is an excellent learning opportunity for future physical and special education teachers. Jennifer admitted that it was at her first Camp Abilities, her beliefs in what children who are visually impaired can accomplish expanded. But an additional component of Camp Abilities Florida is the Counselor-In-Training program. The CIT program allows campers, like April, to become counselors too. CIT participants are the perfect persons to teach counselors how to best help a child who is visually impaired. CIT participants are the perfect persons to encourage a camper to jump off the paddle board and into cool lake.
Camp Abilities is so much more than campfires and kayaking. Whether a parent, a camper, a counselor or a counselor-in-training, Camp Abilities is a place to Believe You Can Achieve.
With the support of The Foreseeable Future Foundation a whole new group of kids will reach new heights on the rock climbing wall, and hit the bullseye in the archery, and laugh until their bellies hurt while bouncing on the obstacle course.
“I was so scared.”
Michael was eight years old when he attended his first Camp Abilities. When he got back home, he told his teacher, “Ms. Jennifer pushed me out on a paddle board. I was so scared, but I jumped off. I did it!”
“It’s my favorite week of the year. Non-stop fun. It’s amazing to see kids accomplishing and conquering. It’s worth it. ~ Jennifer Stelmach
If you’d like more information on or to donate to Camp Abilities Florida, please visit https://www.campabilitiesflorida.com/.
Little Legend Foundation https://thelittlelegendfoundation.com/
Montgomery Center https://www.montgomerycenter.net/
Camp Abilities Brockport https://www.campabilities.org/