Jake Clapp 2014-05-13 12:33:25
The Louisiana Lions Camp offers a fun-filled haven for special needs children to be the ‘normal’ ones. The mission of the camp is to give disabled children a normal summer camp experience. Maya, 15, hollers with excitement as the beanbag she launched with a catapult lands with a light thud on a small platform a couple of feet away. Maya chooses her prize–a stuffed animal that she glancingly admires before stuffing it into a large bag already filling up with other toys. She then quickly rolls her wheelchair to the next game. Around her, Matthew’s Midway is bustling. It’s the weekly carnival night at Louisiana Lions Camp, one of the camp’s most popular evening events. Lions who live nearby in Leesville and Anacoco grill sausages, make snow cones and run typical carnival attractions such as Skee ball, sponge toss and face painting. A quiet, older camper named Tim is trying his first snow cone, a banana flavored ice ball. Yu, a counselor, asks him if it’s turning his tongue yellow. Tim smiles and sticks out his yellow-dyed tongue, prompting two other campers around him to stick out their own to be checked for red and green. Meanwhile, Kristian and his girlfriend Ashley, two campers who met at Lions Camp, sit on a bench watching younger kids try their hands at a Wheel of Fortune game and the water balloon pop. It’s become tradition for both campers and counselors to come in costume for the evening. A group of older boy counselors dresses in wigs, jogging shorts and sorority tank tops, trying to look like the sorority pledges you might find on the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus. More than a few campers and counselors are dressed as zombies. One camper is wearing a Batman mask while his counselor is a mild-mannered Clark Kent. Before the night is over, several campers and their counselors are hauling multiple large garbage bags filled with stuffed animals around the area. Campers will now face the difficult decision of which ones they can shove into their luggage for the trip home in a few days. The night is an exciting midweek highlight during the Lions Camp session for physically challenged campers. It’s one highlight among many. There is the Kangaroo Court, in which campers can accuse counselors and staff of “not cheering enough” or having “bad taste in music,” resulting in the punishment of being slimed or sitting in ice. Also memorable are the spectacular July 4th fireworks show and the teary-eyed final night campfire. There will be a lot for both campers and counselors to remember. There always is at “Our Summer Place,” as campers affectionately call the camp. LC Love For 56 years, 51 at its current location outside of Leesville, the Louisiana Lions Club has operated a residential summer camp for youth with special needs, diabetes and pulmonary disorders. Broken into seven one-week sessions over the summer and featuring a small counselor-to-camper ratio, the camp provides the state’s children with a place where they can have a memorable summer camp experience– complete with archery, swimming, fishing, volleyball, basketball and other outdoor sports–that they might have otherwise missed. As several campers, counselors and alumni put it, at the Lions Camp “no matter the disability, the campers are the normal.” The camp is completely free for boys and girls in the state. Louisiana Lions cover the costs, and many clubs sponsor local children for whatever additional cost it might take to get them to camp. Clubs also charter bus trips for area children to get to the camp. Ray Cecil’s first encounter with the camp dates to 1977 after he finished eighth grade. He rode with his father to pick up a camper to bring to the Lions Camp. He had never before been to Leesville but liked the camp enough to volunteer the next summer. Now the camp’s executive director, the 2013 summer marked his 26th year at the Louisiana Lions Camp. “The campers have a way of intertwining their lives into yours, and you learn all sorts of things,” Cecil says. The effect is a chain reaction of good feelings called “LC Love” that seems to catch anyone who turns off U.S. Highway 171 and drives past the lion statues onto the Lions Camp grounds. Symbolized as an “L” drawn into a heart, LC Love is seen everywhere on the campgrounds–scrawled with Sharpies on picnic tables and benches and painted into mosaics. As Cecil puts it, the summer camp is like any other camp, where kids can have normal experiences with others like them. Family bonds begin to form between the campers and also draw in the counselors and staff, many of whom once were campers themselves. It’s what keeps campers and staff wanting to come back year after year. “Really, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And tradition-wise, the mission of the camp–with what we’re trying to offer to the kids–that hasn’t changed,” Cecil says. “This is their place and that’s what we want them to know. This is their home; they’re looking forward to this every summer. They’ve been packed [to come here] for weeks.” Building Confidence The Lions Camp summer typically begins in June with Camp Pelican, a program hosted with Louisiana Pulmonary Disease Camp, Inc., for children with cystic fibrosis, severe and chronic asthma and those with tracheostomies. Camp Pelican is followed by a week of training for summer staff, then two weeks for mentally challenged campers ages 8 to 19, two weeks for physically challenged campers ages 7 to 19, followed by a diabetes camp for ages 6 to 10 before a week for diabetic campers ages 11 to 14. On average, more than 500 kids will go through the Lions Camp during the summer, Cecil says. The first physically challenged camp week last summer saw 47 kids with 57 staffers. Children with disabilities such as spina bifida, visual impairments, cerebral palsy and Rett syndrome cycle through the day’s activities: swimming, archery, arts and crafts, fishing and team sports. They are split into groups, called patrols, based on their ages, with the staffers divided out among them. The girls go into the Cherokee, Sioux, Caddo and Cree patrols, while the boys are divided into the Apache, Comanche, Crow and Hopi. The groups quickly form team bonds and learn to work together to win challenges: which patrol can cheer the loudest or earn the most points at an activity. “Kids come away with a lot more confidence,” says Brittany Barbier, the camp’s program director. This is Barbier’s eighth summer at the camp, a place she credits for her current career path as a special education teacher. “This shows them they can do anything they want to do. They don’t have any obstacles bigger than what they have already faced,” she says as she points to a camper in the swimming pool. The young man has a form of arthritis that limits his arms’ range of motion, but he has learned to catch a Frisbee and ball. During diabetes weeks, campers are taught tips to help keep their blood sugar in check, and some young campers even learn how to administer their own insulin shots. In fact, several current staffers once were diabetes campers. Kristian Bellard, a camper with spina bifida from Pine Prairie, has been going to the Lions Camp since he was 10 years old. Now 17, Bellard has won nine state championships in wheelchair racing. “[I’ve learned] to be lucky that I have what I got,” Bellard says. “I’m lucky that I’m not like some other kids. You learn to live with what you got.” Away from Cruelty Any time during the day chants and cheers can be heard echoing across the campgrounds. There seems to be a chant for everything: when campers are late for an activity, when it’s time to eat, when someone drops something, or when a camper wins a challenge–not to mention the unique cheers each patrol has for their own group names. The enthused yells are a big part of the camp experience, and they’re shouted at the top of each camper’s lungs. If you’re lucky, you might even get your own chant, like the energetic, gravel-voiced Ferlandric Bell (cover). “The smiles on the campers’ faces, when we do the cheering, it really does something to me, it really melts my heart,” Bell says. Bell, a junior at Northwestern State University of Louisiana, began volunteering in 2010, and by the 2013 summer he was the BB gun and archery instructor. “You know, away from here [campers] might not ever get to experience going out to a dance,” Bell says. “The world can be cruel and if you’re not like everyone else, you can be excluded. But here they can experience things that they might not normally. Like shooting BBs, archery and things like that. That’s what I love about camp.” Maya Humphrey, who is in her sixth summer at camp, says she mails off her camp application letter the day after she gets it in the mail and “likes coming for the kids like her.” Bailey LeBlanc, a Cherokee camper, shares a similar sentiment, although she adds she comes back every summer to see Brittany Barbier. The counselors aren’t allowed to choose favorites, Barbier says, but that doesn’t stop the kids from having favorite staffers and forming friendships. “The most difficult part is saying goodbye to the kids,” Barbier says. “Knowing that it’s their last year and they won’t be back next summer. It gets hard.” To help stay connected, alumni associations have started for both staff and campers. Many alumni have left their own mark on the camp. Matthew Palm, a camper who passed away in 2008, is the namesake behind Matthew’s Midway. Happy Tears In 1957, a group of Lions wanted to send a few post-polio and physically challenged children to summer camp but couldn’t find an accepting program. Taking matters into their own hands, they founded the Louisiana Lions League for Crippled Children, Inc. For the first few years, the league piloted a program at Camp Windywood, until the Leesville Lions Club donated 100 acres of piney woodlands north of town to build a permanent camp. Lions Camp occupies about 8 acres, plus the lake. The first camping session opened on July 9, 1961, and since then, the camp has become an American Camp Association accredited camp with more than 22,000 children having attended, all for free. The league made every Lion in Louisiana a charter member who is personally responsible for the financial stability of the camp, says Logan Morris, president of the Leesville Lions Club and grandson of one of the camp’s founders. “It takes a good bit of money to fund the camp season, and it’s funded entirely by donations, 90 percent of which come from the Lions clubs of Louisiana,” Morris says. The full cost is met through pledges, memorials and donations to the Louisiana Lions League for Crippled Children. “Our camps typically stay pretty full,” Morris says. “The thing we fall short on is identifying the campers in local school systems as they are available or may exist, and to adequately explain to the parents that they can be comfortable letting their kids go.” But once parents do let go, or a staffer volunteers for the first time, the positivity is infectious. “You’re bit, and you can’t get away,” Morris adds. “A prime example of that is a lot of kids that come here for the first time are crying when they get off the bus, or out of their parents’ car. They do not want to go to camp. But by Friday night, they’ll be crying because they don’t want to leave, and they can’t wait to come back. If you can get them here for the first time and let them see the experience, they will never forget it.” Alumni Cherish Time at Camp Even after more than 50 years, Dean Navarre, Carl Cortez and Joe Territa still talk about their first summers at the Louisiana Lions Camp like it happened last July. The three will go on for hours on the pranks they pulled, the trouble they caused– and narrowly avoided–and the lifelong friendships they made in the early 1960s. The three men regularly stay in touch, and through the Louisiana Lions Camper Alumni Association, an organization they helped shape, they work to keep past campers connected and foster “LC Love” years after they’ve passed the camp’s age requirements. The memories of the camp are powerful and long lasting. Ask any alumnus and they’ll gladly share why the camp was important to their lives. Can’t Leave Celeste Naquin lied about her age for six years just to be able to continue attending Lions Camp past the cutoff age of 19. Celeste, who is now 37, began attending camp when she was 13, but her mother, Cindy Naquin (at right with Celeste), admitted to being hesitant to let her go that first year and called the camp multiple times to check in. She relaxed after that first summer. “The first thing [Celeste] told me when she got off the bus, ‘Can we go back next year, please?’” Naquin says. Celeste was able to make it to 25 before someone noticed she was too old for the camp. Still, her devotion to the camp was honored with a plaque. Skills for Life “We had counselors who believed in us,” says Brenda Hughes DuFour, who attended camp five times between 1958 and 1965. “We didn’t believe in ourselves, but the counselors believed in us. I have confidence today because of what I did at Lions Camp.” When Hurricane Andrew blew through south-central Louisiana in 1992, DuFour volunteered with the Red Cross at a shelter, helping to unfold Army cots–a skill she picked up while setting up cots at camp. DuFour spent most of her childhood in foster care. The camp gave her stability in her life. “The thing that I held on to, kept me above water, was the fact that I went to Lions Camp.” Priceless Peers While New Orleans native Greg Johnson was at the camp from 1964 to 1967, he gravitated toward archery–proudly earning every award he could with the bow and arrow. “Those years were priceless,” he says. “You could not put any kind of value on it. … I think it was the idea of seeing people that I could relate to. Seeing kids that really understood me, with the handicap that I have and just knowing you’re in the same group of people that have problems just like you. Not like going back home and you’re one in thousands.” Passing the Lessons Chris Usé Stoll (at right) remains one of the few campers who was asked back to be a junior counselor–a younger staff member who helps around the camp. “It was a real experience because I worked with different disabilities while I was there,” she says. Stoll became a teacher for more than 25 years. Her time at Lions Camp influenced how she worked within the classroom. “When I think about what I possibly would have been without camp, when I think about all the things we did in our lives because of it, that is the utmost thing in my mind,” she says. “I hated school, but I became a teacher because I worked with children of all disabilities at camp.” Digital LION It was a summer of fun in 1966 at the Wisconsin Lions Camp as detailed in the LION. Get the complete story and photos at www.lionmagazine.org.
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