Steven Kennedy loves school. He’d go every single day if he could, said his mother, Kristin Kennedy. But Steven graduated with his Summit High School senior class last Saturday and school is out for the summer, which means Steven needs something else to occupy his days.
Steven has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes a variety of conditions, including physical growth delays and developmental or intellectual disabilities. Though he is physically 19 years old, his mental age is around that of an 11- or 12-year-old, Kristin said, so he needs supervision and care.
In the past, Kristin struggled with what to do with Steven during the summer when he was out of school, particularly once he passed the age of 12.
“I had nowhere to send my son all summer, with all these kids in Summit County with all these opportunities — but my son was over 12 and that made me really angry because there were no camps that would allow him to participate,” she said, even though he was “developmentally appropriate.”
Kristin is a member of Families of Exceptional Learners (FOEL), a local support group for parents and families with special needs children. She and others in the group had the same question — what to do with their special needs children during the summer months.
“We were lamenting how some of the kids had aged out of the existing programs, so they were 13 and older, yet they still require the same level of supervision of young kids and how there wasn’t anything for them up here in the summer,” said Betty Sarber, facilitator of the FOEL group. “It was, ‘Guess where my son or daughter is going to spend their summer? In the basement, with me.’”
So the group started looking for solutions and came across representatives for Easter Seals, a nationwide 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that provides services for children and adults with disabilities and special needs. The organization offered to operate a day camp in Summit County to meet the community’s needs.
Now the Summit camp, which has been renamed Yay! Camp Summit, is heading into its fourth summer. Currently 11 children are signed up, with at least five trained and certified counselors on board. Registration is still open. The camp is available to all disabled and/or special needs children from ages 6 to 18, and takes place three days a week (Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday) from June 9 to Aug. 1.
“We’re trying to build right now,” said camp director Julie Crafton. She hopes that more families will learn about the organization and consider it for their children. An informational open house will take place this Saturday, May 31, in Frisco.
Crafton knows firsthand how beneficial an Easter Seals camp can be. Every Easter Seals camp is different, and one in her native Illinois offered a weeklong camp for cancer patients. At age 14, she was going through chemotherapy, and attended the camp.
“I remember one of the biggest things to me, up till that point I had not met someone my age who understood what I was going through, to be in the hospital and poked with needles and go through chemotherapy,” she said.
At Easter Seals, she found those people, and they had a profound impact.
“I spent that week there and I knew, this is what I was going to do,” she said. She went back, later as a counselor and continued returning. She’s spent three years at the Easter Seals Camp Rocky Mountain Village in Empire, and took on the role of director of the Summit County program last year.
“The community really supports our camp so much with providing us with different venues,” she said. “A lot of different organizations in Summit County help us with our activities right now. … All of our activities are all in the community and they differ every single day.”
Based out of the SOS Outreach building in Frisco, the campers often leave the site to visit various locations around the community, from pottery at Ready Paint Fire! in Breckenridge to pontoon boating on Lake Dillon, and more.
“Our first goal is to have our campers be safe,” Crafton said. The second is to make sure the campers “have the most awesome summer, have as many new experiences as they can have.”
Having a place where their children can experience the benefits of a place like Summit County has been helpful not only to the children, but their parents as well.
“Even if you’re not working, it’s hard to have your son or daughter at home with you and requiring that supervision,” Sarber said.
Kristin agreed. Her work schedule doesn’t allow for her to take extra time in the summer for when her son Steven is at home. Having somewhere for him to go is beneficial for both of them.
“He needs athletic opportunities, he needs social opportunities, and he doesn’t want to sit at home all summer,” she said.
Luckily, there’s Easter Seals, an experience he’s enjoyed throughout its three years.
“The people who work there are really fantastic. They really love the kids, the kids have a great time,” said Kristin. “He loves it there, so they’re doing something right.”
She also hopes that other families with special needs children will investigate to see if the Easter Seals camp is right for them.
“I just want the community involved,” she said. “I want those people out there who have kids who would fit this program to come and try it out.”