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In the news: Girl Scouts who run summer camp for disabled children find experience life changing


Girl Scouts who run summer camp for disabled children find experience life changing
By Beth Cravey, The Florida Times-Union

MIDDLEBURG | Scouting veteran Christy Dickinson Waldenmaier was on a tour of the Girl Scouts of Gateway Council-run Smile Camp Wednesday when she heard that a woman nicknamed Bubba was one of the camp’s adult leaders.

Waldenmaier was thrilled.

She knew Bubba, also known as Sherri Johnson, from the late 1970s and early 1980s when both were youth counselors at Smile Camp, a weeklong summer day camp for kindergarten to fifth-grade students with physical or intellectual disabilities. In those days the camp was at Camp Chowenwaw near Green Cove Springs but is now at the larger North Fork Leadership Center near Middleburg.

“Where is she? I have to see her,” Waldenmaier said excitedly.

When the two met up a short time later at the camp’s cabin area, Johnson recognized Waldenmaier right off the bat and the two hugged multiple times. They discovered that both have remained active in council activities, Johnson with Smile Camp and Waldenmaier on the council board and in fundraising.

“When you get involved with Girl Scouts, it’s in your blood,” Waldenmaier said. “I am who I am because of Scouting.”

50 YEARS RUNNING

The council has staged Smile Camp every summer for about 50 years to give special-needs children a summer-camp experience with pool time, arts and crafts, games and sing-alongs.

Activities are planned and staffed by rising ninth- to 12th-grade Girl Scout counselors who are overseen by Johnson and other adult advisers. The counselors receive intensive training, spend camp nights at North Fork and pay $100 each to be there. Each camper is paired with one or two counselors — depending on the camper’s needs — for the entire week. The fee for campers is $65, but scholarships are available.

This year 37 campers attended, including two in wheelchairs. There were about 48 counselors, as well as 11 youth “directors” who are experienced counselors in charge of specific parts of the camp operation.

Waldenmaier and about a dozen other Scouting veterans joined them Wednesday for a reunion of former Smile Camp counselors. Some of them are in college, others are further along in their adult lives. Directors Emily Echevarria, 17, and Jenna Thompson, 18, took the reunion group on a tour of the grounds where they watched this year’s crop of campers and counselors in action.

At the water play area, camper Caiden, 6, greeted them and studied the Scouting pins worn by former counselor Laura Bingham Witte.

“Why do you have pins and I don’t?” he asked.

She explained to him that the pins signified her various Scouting years and accomplishments. He nodded and went on his way.

“This is great,” she said.

Witte said she was impressed with the campsite — Chowenwaw was compact, compared to the spread-out North Fork — and the amenities. The North Fork pool is much larger and counselors sleep in small cabins, rather than the platform tents of Chowenwaw.

“It’s overwhelming here,” she said.

Waldenmaier remembered having only two youth directors, compared to the current 11. Another change is adult volunteers handling meal preparation duties.

“We had to cook everything ourselves,” she said.

LASTING IMPRESSION

According to the council, many former counselors and directors were so inspired by their Smile Camp experiences that they went on to careers in teaching — Johnson teaches special-needs students at Crystal Springs Elementary, for instance — or physical or occupational therapy.

Thompson, in her fifth and final stint helping run Smile Camp, may follow in their footsteps. The recent Fletcher High School graduate soon heads to Jacksonville University, with a scholarship that stemmed from her having earned the Gold Award, Girl Scouting’s highest honor.

“I’m figuring out where I want to go [careerwise] but I definitely want to work with kids,” she said.

Echevarria, who is in her fourth year as a camp staffer and will soon begin her senior year at Fletcher, also wants to somehow work with children in her adult life. But she said her Smile Camp experiences transformed more than her career outlook.

Her interaction with special-needs children taught her to enjoy life and appreciate others.

“They could have been screaming at you all day, but at the end of the day they don’t want to leave you,” she said. “They’re so smart and funny. Some of them have a rough life … but they are so positive and happy.”

She has also learned patience and leadership. She has met all sorts of new people and feels comfortable speaking to large groups and fundraising for camper scholarships.

“It’s such a big part of my life. … My favorite part of Scouting,” Echevarria said. “It’s changed how I view the world.”

Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109