BRANDON - Mix a bunch of kids away from their parents for a week with some wiggly lizards and slithering snakes, stir in a good dose of Florida heat and a swimming pool and it's summertime at Rotary's Camp Florida.
Two special needs groups used the camp this week to allow children with prosthetics and other mobility issues and youngsters with a rare hip bone disorder to get a heaping helping of summer fun.
Tampa Shriners Hospital for Children hosted Camp Care-A-Lot and a new group, the Perthes Kids Foundation, hosted Camp Perthes at the 21-acre retreat off of Lakewood Road. And just like summer camp for any group of kids, these youngsters wasted no time in diving in to everything the camp had to offer.
All week, they enjoyed story tellers, swimming, fishing, archery, a visit from Croc Encounters - a reptile rescue in Tampa - canoeing and even a visit from a mad scientist.
"Our kids come from throughout Florida and South Georgia," said Bob Robaus, with Camp Care-A-Lot.
Some have had their legs amputated, some suffer from cerebral palsy or other disorders or were born with missing limbs. When they get to camp, they find a bond, said Tara Deering, co-director of the camp with Robaus.
Most loved the visit from the Croc Encounters, during which they got to hold a young alligator and touch a 50-pound tortoise. Some even volunteered to hold a boa constrictor.
"I really like the alligator," said Amelia Lowry, 8, of Land 'O Lakes. "It's smooth and dry."
Lauran Neal, 9, of Tampa, sat with Croc Encounters volunteer Matt Turner to learn more about the Sulcata tortoise.
"Most kids love animals and these are the kinds of animals they don't get to see up close very often," Turner said.
A teacher when he's not volunteering, Turner said he keeps some of the reptiles in his classroom during the school year.
The Perthes Kids Foundation is hosting its camp for the first time this year. Earl Cole, who started the foundation after winning the CBS reality show Survivor in 2007 (the show's 14th season), suffered from Legg-Calve-Perthes disease. After visiting Camp Care-A-Lot at Rotary's Camp Florida, he decided to host his own camp for kids with the hip bone disease.
Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, according to the Mayo Clinic, is a childhood condition that affects the hip. The blood supply to the ball joint gets cut off, causing the bone to die. It regenerates, but sometimes breaks more easily or heals poorly. Cole's foundation helps pay for research into new treatment methods and to support families affected by the disease. It tends to show up most often in boys 4 to 8 years old.
Cole said the camp has drawn youngsters from all over the United States and Canada. Fifteen are attending this year. "There was so much interest, I had to limit the number of kids for this first year, to make sure we got everything just right," Cole said.
He said he was impressed by the Rotary camp and hopes to come back here again.
The Shriners Hospital has used Rotary's Camp Florida since 2000.
"We identify good candidates at the hospital and the kids are invited only once to camp, to give more of them the opportunity to come," said Physical Therapist Pam Versage. "It promotes social skills and it's good for them to meet others that are also Shriners patients.
"A lot of times, it's their first time away from home and they gain a lot of self confidence," Versage said. "And they just have a lot of fun."