Years ago when Dick Sesler’s son Brent was diagnosed with Williams Syndrome (a rare developmental disorder) he was able to find services that could benefit his son. Unfortunately when Brent became an adult he discovered that such services became almost non-existent. In an effort to remedy this Dick had an idea. “What about a camp for adults like Brent?” That idea lead to a dream–Camp Blue Skies.
“Today there’s really a camp for everything,” Dick says. “My wife has attended banjo camp, some friends of mine go to fantasy baseball camp, so I thought, ‘Hey, why not a camp for adults with developmental disabilities?’”
Thus Dick began an adventure that has lead to Camp Blue Skies which has now completed two sessions and has been an overwhelming success. In fact, there’s a waiting list for their October 2011 camp being held at YMCA’s Camp Harrison in the NC mountains. It is in a beautiful spot about 90 miles outside of Charlotte.
Brent, Dick’s son, has attended both camp sessions held thus far – one in NC and one east of Atlanta in Rutledge, GA at the Camp Twin Lakes facility. He is thrilled at having the opportunity to meet new friends and learn new things. Currently he is the camp’s personal greeter. Some call him “The Mayor.” He makes new and returning campers alike feel at home and enjoys getting to know people while attending camp.
When Brent is not spending time at Blue Skies he works in the instrument sterilization department at Carolinas Medical Center, Charlotte’s largest hospital and lives independently.
So what has Brent gained from attending Camp Blue Skies? According to Dick quite a lot. “Since the camp’s inception I’ve really seen my son increase his confidence level and gain some true leadership abilities,” he says. “It’s been such a positive experience for everyone involved. It’s all about recreation, socialization and life skills.”
And Dick is not the only one who has seen positive changes.
According to one parent she saw a huge change in her own child in just one session of camp. “I saw my son, David, mature and experience challenges that I, as a protective mom, would never have provided,” says Mrs. Young. “He seems to have found a new confidence from within and an added enthusiasm about life in general. I also heard some great stories from David about how other campers handled being away from home for the first time and how they got to know and respect their counselors.”
Life at Camp Blue Skies is similar to many traditional camps. The first night kicks off with s’mores and stories by the campfire. Campers are placed in activity groups for the week and each camper is exposed to fun and adventure through appropriate challenges. Each day there are at least four activities that range from nature hikes and fishing to “Fun with Food” (a life skills class), ziplining and arts and crafts, field games, dancing and so much more. They also gain a better understanding of self and others through group living (in cabins) and shared experiences. The last night rounds out the week with a fun-filled dance, always a big hit.
Volunteers are a key part of the success of Camp Blue Skies. The camper to counselor ratio is 2:1 and a professional caregiver (someone who knows well or works directly with the population) is present in each cabin. Each activity group is comprised of two cabins and has approximately 4-6 volunteers along with the 12-16 campers. The volunteers each have an impact on the campers with whom they interact. As Brent says, “I loved the counselors I was living with. I loved their humor and their attitude. They were the best!”
Camp Blue Skies is filling a gap in services. The need is clearly there. And it is making a positive difference in the lives of so many. A recent camper with a hearing disability celebrated his 60th birthday while at camp. Dick explained that one of the counselors who was proficient in sign language lead the entire camp in signing the “Happy Birthday” song to him .The camper’s enormous smile and tears of happiness indicated just how much that one small gesture mattered in his life.
The Camp Blue Skies dream-to-reality story is truly remarkable. Dick and his wife, Betsey, have been talking about this for many years. Still Betsey couldn’t believe it finally happened the way it did. “Though we’ve been talking about this camp idea since long before Dick retired from a career in investment banking I’ve been astounded that he pulled it off so quickly,” Betsey says. “From day one he made a point of seeking valuable advice from parents, professionals, teachers, students, community volunteers, naturalists, recreation specialists, marketing people, potential campers and countless others who were eager to share their expertise.”
The end result? A team of incredibly skilled and dedicated staff who share one vision — the Camp Blue Skies vision. According to Dick that vision is “to create camp experiences throughout the United States for adults with developmental disabilities.” And while there is much work to be done and money to be raised Camp Blue Skies is already making a difference. It is a true bright spot for adults with developmental disabilities. Now it’s time to take Camp Blue Skies and expand it in order to benefit more and more people.
Now that sounds like a dream come true for everyone!