Special Olympics athletes enjoy traditional summer camp

Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark : Annie Manista, a Project Unify partner with Special Olympics Delaware poses, with Ocean View resident Carol Bak, a Special Olympics athlete, after a kayaking trip. They were two of many who participated in the Special Olympics Delaware Summer Camp that took place at Camp Barnes earlier this month.Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark : Annie Manista, a Project Unify partner with Special Olympics Delaware poses, with Ocean View resident Carol Bak, a Special Olympics athlete, after a kayaking trip. They were two of many who participated in the Special Olympics Delaware Summer Camp that took place at Camp Barnes earlier this month.Special Olympics Delaware recently held its 14th annual Summer Camp at Camp Barnes. At the three-day camp, 54 athletes from all over the state attended to enjoy a classic summer camp, complete with archery, canoeing, crafts, sports and more.

“A lot of our Special Olympics athletes don’t get to go to a traditional [camp] — this is their opportunity,” said Jon Buzby, director of media relations for Special Olympics Delaware (SODE).

“That’s not to say that the local camp is going to turn away a child or adult with Down syndrome. But what we have here is counselors who are trained and educated on what they can do to make the experience the best possible for people with intellectual disabilities.”

SODE holds two sessions of camp each summer, each of which spans three days and two nights.

“I love the camp,” said Carol Bak, a Special Olympics athlete on from Ocean View, noting that swimming is one of her favorite camp activities. “Last night, we did the campfire. Tonight, we’re going to do the dance. I got lots of friends here.”

Bak is a member of the Sussex Rip Tides and has been involved in Special Olympics for 40 years.

“Carol started Special Olympics when she was 8 years old, which then was the earliest you could start. Now you can start when you’re 2,” explained Buzby.

She has been participating in numerous sports, including tennis, bowling and golf, and recently Bak received two gold medals after competing in a bocce ball competition.

“I went to New Jersey for bocce. It was the USA games in New Jersey. I did bocce ball. My dad is my coach. I did singles, doubles and team. I got two golds.”

During the recent camp session, SODE celebrated Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day (EKS Day), honoring the memory of the founder of the Special Olympics movement and an advocate for the rights of people with intellectual disabilities.

Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark : Special Olympics Delaware athletes and Project Unify partners enjoy a pontoon boat ride on Millers Creek, a tributary of Little Assawoman Bay, courtesy of North Bay Marina.Coastal Point • R. Chris Clark : Special Olympics Delaware athletes and Project Unify partners enjoy a pontoon boat ride on Millers Creek, a tributary of Little Assawoman Bay, courtesy of North Bay Marina.“It’s an opportunity for programs around the world to honor our founder — Mrs. Eunice Kennedy Shriver,” Buzby explained. “When we sat down and thought about what event we could do, Mrs. Shriver’s big push and the reason she started Special Olympics was because she believed people with and without intellectual disabilities should be together and work together.

“Although we do that at all of our events in some fashion, I don’t think there’s ever an event that we have that demonstrates the unity between people with and without intellectual disabilities like this camp does.”

Unification is a common theme around the camp, with the athletes naturally pairing up with volunteers without intellectual disabilities.

“When they sit together in the cafeteria, they sit every other person. It’s not because we tell them that’s what they have to do. It happens naturally,” said Buzby. “It’s a wonderful experience for everyone — the campers and the counselors.”

Gary Cimaglia, SODE senior director of sports and the camp’s director, said that attending camp is a relaxing and fun experience that he looks forward to every year.

“I enjoy being with the athletes all the time. Whether it’s a competition or a setting like this, I just enjoy being with people who are themselves,” he said. “It makes you feel good with what you’re doing, and you wish everybody could be themselves. It’s just fun. Everyone just relaxes, and no one focuses on anyone’s disability.”

Cimaglia was quick to point out that the camp would not be possible without its many volunteers.

“It’s amazing how selfless people are,” said Cimaglia. “This is our job. These other folks, they’re giving up their time to be here.”

Ocean View resident Marie McIntosh has been volunteering for the camp for 13 years, after first getting involved in SODE as a swimming coach upstate.

“I decided to have a Blue & Gold meet — meaning I would have unified partners swimming with handicapped individuals. That’s how it began,” she said. “Then, in 1976, I asked to volunteer at some events.”

McIntosh was a swimming and tennis coach for the Thunder Bears in New Castle County for many years before moving to Sussex County a decade years ago.

“Once I started living down here, I started cycling, tennis and swimming.”

The volunteerism at the camp and in the SODE organization, said McIntosh, is always wonderful to see.

“I’ve been trying to get my tennis friends involved, and there are a number of them who came this weekend and last weekend. It’s absolutely fabulous. I can’t tell you how wonderful that is. It’s an eye-opening experience for them, they’ve all told me.

“One parent was so impressed — and we needed a new bicycle for one of our athletes — that he paid for it. He said, ‘I just have to do this.’ I just thought that was so incredibly, incredibly neat,” she said.

The support coming from the Delaware State Police year after year, said McIntosh, has been another wonderful gift. She added that many from the community have been supportive of the camp, including North Bay Marina, which this year, for the second year, donated a boat and fuel and gave campers rides on Millers Creek.

“What a wonderful gift that has been. It just gives us one more activity we can do with them,” she said. “The community here has really reached out and is really helpful. I just can’t tell you enough about this community. They really do come forward when we need things.”

McIntosh said that the camp has really helped many of her athletes socialize with fellow athletes and unified partners. (“Unified” is a term from Special Olympics’ Project Unify — an education- and sports-based program focusing on athletic and leadership opportunities for both those with and without intellectual disabilities, as well as on acceptance. Currently, there are more than 80 schools in Delaware participating in Project Unify.)

“We had a number of athletes that didn’t talk very much, and they’re all talking now because of the socialization. It’s not enough just for them to do it but they have to do it with each other,” she said. “The unified partners have been an incredible bonus. These are generally high school kids who come and partner with an athlete. That’s an incredible project.”

More than 40 volunteer counselors and camp staff from all over the state attend each camp.

“Most of them are from high schools that are part of our Project Unify club,” said Buzby of the volunteers. “The purpose of the club is to engage regular education students with those with intellectual disabilities. It has been overwhelming, the way the program has grown over the last several years.

“The high school kids get involved and they just want more. A lot of the high school students that are here today were here a week ago, were here the year before that. There were several who started when they were in high school who are now in college that are back.”

Annie Manista, 17, of Hockessin volunteered as a camp counselor last week for the second year in a row.

“My friend’s sister has Down syndrome, and he’s very involved with Special Olympics. He was telling me about it and asked if I wanted to participate, too. So I did. I got involved with the Newark Dragon. Then I heard about camp and signed up for it,” she said.

“I just like the whole environment, and everyone here — the campers and the counselors. I just thought it was very welcoming. Everyone has such a good time, and no one has to worry about fitting in. I really like that.”

Manista said she had so much fun volunteering at the camp last year that she recommended the camp to many of her friends and classmates.

“Two of my friends are here with me, too. I told them about it — that’s why they’re here this summer,” she said. “It’s so much fun with all the activities. Even though you’re not the same age as them or anything, you’re both here for the same idea — you just want to have a good time.”

Manista said she definitely plans to volunteer for the camp next summer and hopes to be able to attend both sessions.

“I looked forward to this all summer — especially coming from last year. I just had such a good time.”

Buzby said that, as Project Unify grows, Special Olympics hopes to have a club in every school in the state, with a corresponding Special Olympics team.

“What we hope, ultimately, is that these volunteer counselors that you see here today and in the high schools, that in 10 years, when they’re in a position to make a decision about whether to hire somebody with Down syndrome, they reflect on their experience here and realize that, just because that person has Down syndrome or autism, doesn’t mean they can’t do a certain job.”

He added that Bak has been working for SODE for years and is a wonderful employee.

“Carol will come into our office and she’ll stuff envelopes for eight hours nonstop. She sits until you tell her it’s lunchtime. She’s more productive than anybody in our office would be.

“It’s not menial work to her, like it would be to a lot of people. She enjoys it and enjoys the satisfaction of doing it right. She knows it’s something that needs to be done. She knows it’s a productive thing,” he said. “I remember her mom telling us — this was years ago — how excited Carol was when the mailing she prepared arrived at home. She was telling everyone, ‘I did this.’ It was pretty cool.”

The summer camp has become a family affair for many, including Cimaglia, whose daughter Jaclyn Izzi a SODE athlete and attends the camp, along with other her daughter and son, Karen and Gary Cimaglia, who serve as counselors.

“It’s cool to have them all here,” said Cimaglia. “For my daughter Jaclyn, this is the first time she’s ever come to camp. She’s having a great time, which is really cool.

“When you have kids, you hope they want to give back and do good things and be together — and with me,” she said with a laugh. “They still want to be involved in what I do and with each other… It’s nice to see they believe in what I do and want to be a part of it.”

Buzby said that he, too, used to bring his eldest son to camp when it first started.

“I brought him here to help me. When the camp first started, we used to bring 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds to camp. So I was in charge of the cabin with the little guys, so I would bring him down to help. He enjoyed it — he loved it,” he recalled. “Now I’m on my second marriage and my 7-year-old wants to come to camp, so I will be bringing him. They get exposed to it early on.”

Buzby said it’s always wonderful that the camp “sells out” and said SODE is happy to provide a wonderful camp experience to its athletes in the summer months.

“If you ask the athletes, they’ll tell you it’s the highlight of their summer. Their parents will tell us it’s the highlight of their summer when they come. The parents enjoy them having this opportunity to come. They know they’re sending them to a place where their child is well cared for, safe, and is going to have a good time.”

For more information about Special Olympics Delaware, or to donate, volunteer or sign up an athlete, visit www.sode.org.