Ever have a hard time summarizing what Camp Blue Skies is all about? Thanks to the hard work and creativity of Amy Millikan, our wonderful Development Director, we would like share a creative explanation of who we are and what we do. Hope you enjoy this hypothetical conversation created as part of an innovative grant application through SEED20, a Charlotte based competition designed to discover, spotlight, support, and fund the region’s great ideas for building social value. Proud to say that we have been chosen as a grant recipient and will receive training, coaching, feedback, and mentoring on how to succinctly and powerfully “tell our story.”
This story is told from the perspective of Dick Sesler, our founder, having a surprise encounter after attending a hypothetical innovative non-profit conference.
Leaving the conference, I board the elevator and come face-to-face with the guest speaker, Mr. Ionaire. He asks why I am at the conference and I tell him I have an innovative organization. He asks impatiently, “what’s that all about?” And the story goes from there…
Mr. Ionaire, what an honor to meet you. I’m Dick Sesler, founder of Camp Blue Skies Foundation. Camp Blue Skies is an innovative nonprofit organization that provides overnight camps for adults with developmental disabilities. I have a son who has Williams Syndrome and when he aged out of the school system I found that opportunities for recreation, socialization and continued education diminished greatly. In 2010, I founded Camp Blue Skies. It is a safe and fun camp environment that challenges these adults to gain confidence and teaches them life skills to live more independently. Campers enjoy activities like zip lining, fishing, drumming, skit night, Bingo, and the final dance…who wouldn’t love camp?
The elevator doors open and we enter the lobby…
Let me tell you how we are a unique organization. Most adults with developmental disabilities are isolated – physically and emotionally. We have developed a creative approach to engaging this group of individuals, who otherwise have little opportunity, to recreate and socialize in this type of setting. As I say, “if you can’t drive a car it is hard to make friends”. After I researched the population and existing programs, I found that in NC alone there are over 110,000 adults with developmental disabilities. I discovered a niche that could provide a learning experience that would have a lasting impact on campers and volunteers.
Another notable aspect we provide is respite for parents and caregivers. For many, it may be the only break they receive during the year. They can rest easy knowing that for 5 days and 4 nights their child (or sibling or loved one) is in a safe environment.
Camp Blue Skies was established with an inventive business model. We do not own a physical location but instead lease traditional camp sites during their off season. From the beginning, an infrastructure was created for scalability to expand and support Camp Blue Skies sessions in other geographic locations.
Mr. Ionaire must want to learn more, he offers me a ride to my hotel…
Thanks for the ride. This gives me an opportunity to brag about our success. We have the tools in place to measure and evaluate the overall camp experience. The most valuable information comes from the responses we receive from campers, parents, caregivers, and volunteers. We rely on an extensive survey professionally designed by a UNCC psychology professor to gather pertinent information. She also assists with analyzing the data after every camp session and provides feedback from each constituent group to how we can make changes and improve the overall experience.
Here are 2 statistics that speak to our success in achieving our mission. Roughly 70% of caregivers noticed improvement in camper’s personal responsibility in 2011. In 2012 there was an 87% increase. Almost 56% of caregivers noticed improvement in camper’s eating habits in 2011, this number rose to almost 69% in 2012.
Another positive indicator is our 90% retention rate. We have hosted 9 camp sessions to date and have served 467 campers and utilized over 550 volunteers. Campers look so forward to their return there is often a wait list within the first few days of registration. What we do is hard work but it is fun and rewarding.
Here, I just have to show you some pictures on my iPhone…
As we sit in traffic, Mr. Ionaire asks about our competitors…
While we are sitting in this traffic, let me tell you more about what sets Camp Blue Skies apart. Early on in my research, I found very few programs that serve this adult population, unlike the countless programs that support children with disabilities. To be honest, there are no entities quite like Camp Blue Skies. Most groups serving adults are predominately government funded which locally include InReach, UMAR, and Lifespan. We believe strongly in the private sector approach to our mission.
There is one local day camp, Camp SOAR, and a handful of church camps but they are more recreational while Camp Blue Skies also focuses on life skills and socialization.
Nationally, there is nothing like Camp Blue Skies in the private sector that hosts this type of unique camp experience in multiple locations. Because of our business model, we can expand both locally by securing more weeks in NC or nationally to other locations.
As Mr. Ionaire’s car arrives at the hotel, he ask’s me “How can I help?”…I mention that…
The volunteer to camper ratio is 1:1 and our volunteers must participate in a thorough training session prior to camp. One critical need is funding. Campers pay a $350 registration fee which is only one third of the actual cost. We rely on generous donors, fundraisers and grant rewards to meet the financial demand.
Mr. Ionaire shakes my hand and as I leave I say…
On a parting note, let me share some testimonials to what others say about us:
- “I look forward to 2 things every year…Christmas and Camp Blue Skies.” –NC, Returning Camper
- “Thank you again for the 5 day vacation – the first in 22 years. My husband and I have a renewed relationship because of it.” – Parent NC 2013
- “I had a blast this year. I left with more hope and love than I showed up with.” -5 session volunteer
- Camp Blue Skies is social entrepreneurialism at its finest: identify a previously unaddressed need, create a compelling and exciting solution, market and refine the product and build upon your success in enriching and changing lives. –Camp Blue Skies Board of Director