By Maria Counts
Last week, Special Olympics Delaware athletes from all over the state journeyed to Camp Barnes to participate in a three-day summer camp.
“Back in 2000, we really wanted to provide our athletes a sports opportunity in the summer,” explained Jon Buzby, director of media relations for Special Olympics Delaware, “because, back then, after our summer games in June we had no sports activities until we started back up in the fall. By having the summer camp, it gave what amounts to over 150 total athletes an opportunity to do something to be active in the summer.”
Now in its 12th year, Summer Camp at Camp Barnes has become more of a traditional camp experience for the athletes.
“We realized, from talking to the athletes and getting their feedback, they just wanted to be campers like everybody else. They love to fish, crab, the campfire — all the things that any other traditional summer camp offers, they love to do,” said Buzby.
This was the second year that Project UNIFY — an education-based project that uses “sports and leadership programs to activate young people to develop school communities where all youth are agents of change — fostering respect, dignity and advocacy for people with intellectual disabilities” — has been a part of the summer camp.
“It’s a Special Olympics endeavor to include students and Special Olympics athletes together in an inclusive camp environment,” said Ruth Coughlan, director of Project UNIFY. “It’s a school effort, but we’re bringing it to camp this year so we can extend the good work of the students beyond the classroom and out into the community.”
Coughlan said that there are so many benefits to the program, which allows regular students and students with intellectual disabilities to interact on a more frequent basis, as peers.
“They don’t usually become included in seeing the regular-ed students in social situations. This is a really important way to try and unify regular-ed students to help them to see the benefit of celebrating differences and understanding the uniqueness of all humans,” she said.
“I think it also helps them to understand that everyone needs to be valued. We all deserve friends, having that ability to lead at their school and to become good examples for their fellow students, in making friends and helping to support and be friends with people who have intellectual disabilities at their school, because it’s a great pathway as to how they live the rest of their lives.”
Isabella Nicoletti, 14, who attends Sussex Technical High School and volunteers at the camp, said her camp experience has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I think it’s amazing. It’s a really good opportunity for counselors and campers to come together, put differences aside, and you really get to know them.”
Nicoletti first heard about the camp when her friend, who volunteers there with her family, suggested she become a counselor.
“My sister Madison has autism and she works with Special Olympics swimming, so I figured it was a good opportunity, since I was already involved in a portion of Special Olympics.”
She added that camp has been a really new experience, and although it can be challenging at times, she will definitely be volunteering again next summer.
“I like how I came here and I didn’t know anybody,” said Nicoletti. “It was an opportunity to meet new people, and everybody is really nice here and gets along. You really get to know everybody fast — it feels like I’ve been here a week, but I’ve only been here for two days. Sometimes it can be hard, with behavioral issues, but eventually you just get into the fun of it. When you’re laughing together at the same things, or interacting together, you really just put everything aside.”
Special Olympics athlete David Dube of Millsboro has been participating in camp for three years and plans to continue to attend, as well.
“I love it,” said Dube. “When I come here, I do everything. My favorite activity is fishing, swimming and kayaking.”
Athlete Wynn Freeman of Rehoboth Beach moved to Delaware a few years ago and previously competed in Special Olympics in Pennsylvania.
“I like it in Delaware. I like the beaches and the jazz festival. I’m the smooth-jazz guy. I like the restaurants and the shopping and the people. I like the sports here, and the Special Olympics,” said Freeman, who competes in tennis and swimming.
Freeman said the three-day camp is nice because he gets to see his friends and have fun.
“I like the councilors and my friends and cabin people. I like the arts and crafts, and the swimming. I like kickball,” he said. “I like to get a break from my parents.”
“For some of these athletes, it’s the only opportunity to be away from their home in an overnight experience,” explained Buzby. “Our parents look at it as an opportunity to give their child a safe and enjoyable experience away from home and away from them.”
Coughlan said that, despite the high heat at this year’s camp, campers and counselors were doing their best to make camp a great experience, while enjoying the company of friends.
“Camp is just a fun place for our Special Olympics athletes to enjoy themselves in a typical camp environment. They’re surrounded by a wealth of friends here. They look forward to it every year, and it becomes the highlight of their year.”
“A lot of our campers look forward to camp as much as, if not more than, any other opportunity that we offer,” added Buzby. “For many of them, it’s an opportunity to see friends that they only see at camp.”
Buzby noted that, without the generosity of the Delaware State Police, the camp would not be the success that it is.
“We appreciate Camp Barnes and their hospitality to us. This is the one week that they don’t have camp there in the summer, and they’ve graciously turned their camp over to us,” he said. “We’ve looked around the state for other places, and Camp Barnes is the one place that gives us the one thing we need to provide our athletes with a safe and enjoyable summer camp experience.”
Coughlan said she hopes that Project UNIFY will continue to touch the lives of high-school students and athletes alike, to better the world and allow for greater acceptance.
“Here, you don’t get teased, you don’t get bullied. You’re appreciated, and it’s a lot of fun,” said Coughlan. “We all need friends. Everybody wants a friend. So this becomes a way for our students to have both experiences that are really out of the ordinary. One day, they’re going to become the future employers and future neighbors and the future teachers and future lawmakers. So, youth really do have the power to create those communities of inclusion.”
For more information on Special Olympics Delaware and Project UNIFY, visit www.sode.org.