It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity during which kids with disabilities unearthed abilities they never dreamed they had.
Eighteen children, ages 8-11, from throughout Florida and southern Georgia, recently came together at Camp Care-A-Lot for an action-packed week of fun and discovery.
The setting was Rotary’s Camp Florida, a 21-acre retreat abutting Gornto Lake in Brandon, where several of the youngsters learned how to swim, play golf and even hit a bull’s-eye with a bow and arrow. They also learned how to manipulate a canoe, the best way to bait a fishhook and how to safely handle a BB gun.
In between, they participated in arts and crafts projects, played board and card games and were treated to presentations by a reptile expert and a “mad” scientist. One evening they gathered around a campfire and roasted marshmallows for s’mores.
For the majority of kids, the five-night sleepover was their first-ever overnight stay away from home without parents or guardians.
The experience was provided free of charge to select patients with orthopedic disorders being treated at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa.
Fundraisers and donations helped defray the estimated $450-per-child expense to attend the annual camp, which began at the hospital in 2000 and moved to its present site six years ago.
“It’s great to see the kids in an environment outside the hospital and it’s also nice to see how they interact with kids with the same afflictions,” said camp co- director Bob Robaus, a registered nurse at the Shriners facility in Tampa.
The experience, he noted, also gives the children an opportunity to be independent of their parents and develop more confidence in their own capabilities.
“We have a lot of parents who cry when they leave their kids and we had one parent ask, ‘What am I going to do with myself,’ as she turned to leave after dropping her child off at camp,” Robaus said.
But following their children’s week’s worth of making new friends and taking part in activities they once thought were impossible, many of those same parents have described it as a “life-changing experience” for their kids and themselves.
Rich Besett, Camp Care A-Lot’s cook, who ordinarily builds wheelchairs at the hospital, plans, shops for and prepares the meals around the camp’s theme for each day. They all have to do with countries.
“My favorite meal is Italian night, where we all get dressed up in character,” he said. “The kids really enjoy it.”
Besett’s enthusiasm for what he does is infectious. His wife, Marybeth, comes in every morning before work to help her husband fix the breakfast, and their daughter, Nicole, volunteers her time as a server.
“We all just love helping out,” he said. “The kids just get in your blood.”
Nick Morris, of Tampa, was back for his second year as a camp counselor. He followed in the footsteps of his brother, who also volunteered his time there for a few years.
“It’s really nice seeing how much the kids enjoy being with other kids who also have struggles,” he said.
Eleven-year-old Samuel Franklin, of Pinellas Park, an amputee, said one of his favorite things at the camp was the swimming pool.
“But best of all are the helpers,” he said. “They are all very nice.”
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at [email protected]