Approximately 120 Special Olympics Delaware (SODE) athletes from across the state were able to enjoy a classic summer-camp experience this month at Camp Barnes near Bethany Beach.
“This is the 17th camp,” said Jon Buzby, director of media relations for SODE, who also helped start the camp. “When we started it 17 years ago, we developed it to truly fit into our mission, which is sports training. So, the athletes, when they came here, we did sports — we did volleyball, we did soccer, we did bocce, we did basketball. Everything we did was something they trained and competed in during the year.
“As time went on, what we realized is we were limiting the population that could come to camp because it was so strenuous, as the sports we were offering were more of our high-level sports. “
Buzby said the change-over to the typical summer experience was gradual, but while it was happening, the camp also grew.
“We used to be one camp, two nights, three days. Now we’re two camps, two nights and three days. So instead of serving 50 people, we serve 120 people.”
Campers spent three days and two nights at the camp, enjoying classic camping activities including archery, swimming, kayaking, nature walks, and arts and crafts.
“I like just being with the other athletes and getting to see everybody, because I don’t get to see the upstate athletes very often,” said Suzanne Schaible, 48, of Ocean View.
“I like swimming and cornhole,” said 20-year-old Miranda Vickers of Lewes.
The two women are part of Sussex Riptide, which competes in SODE games. Schaible competes in bowling, biking, tennis and swimming, and Vickers in basketball, bowling and soccer.
The two returning campers said they enjoy the experience, which is why they continue to return every summer.
Vickers added that she enjoys the water and taking the pontoon boat ride.
“We’ve been out there; I love it.”
“Our athletes love camp. It is just neat to see them together. They make friends really easily. It’s a neat experience for them, and it’s a neat experience for us,” said Marie McIntosh, a Sussex Riptide coach and member of the SODE Hall of Fame.
Community support makes the camp happen
Donations and support from the local community help give the campers a great experience. One such experience is that pontoon boat cruise on the Little Assawoman Bay, donated by North Bay Marina owner Scott McCurdy for the last five years.
“That’s a huge contribution. Huge! Some of them use it as naptime. They’re so tired, and it’s so peaceful out there.”
“North Bay Marina, for the fifth summer in a row, they have donated a boat and gasoline. That has become in the last five years probably the single most successful and enriching experience for our athletes — to have that opportunity to go out on a pontoon boat,” added Buzby. “It’s something we talked about for years… The cost of renting one is exorbitant, and North Beach Marina has been wonderful in donating it to us.”
Buzby also said SODE has had a great relationship with the Delaware State Police who oversee Camp Barnes.
“This has been a wonderful partnership for 17 years.”
For a number of years, Tony Gough, who is also a Sussex Riptide coach, has organized a motorcycle ride from Rommel Harley-Davidson in Seaford to the summer camp. The ride is open to all — HOGS, Blue Knights, Red Knights, Legion Riders, Masonic Brotherhood, Hogs & Heroes — anyone who would like to participate. They request a $10 donation per rider, which is then donated to SODE.
The local business community has been extra-supportive of Sussex Riptide athletes in the Ocean View area. McIntosh praised Bike Connection and Millsboro Lanes for their support, among others.
“We have people that just help us. The community here… I can’t tell you… the community here is outstanding,” she said.
Athletes can practice at Bayside Tennis Club and Sea Colony with Sea Colony lifeguards on duty.
“It’s a busy time of year. They always, always send lifeguards to us. They’re super-, super-helpful,” McIntosh said of Sea Colony.
For the last few years, cycling athletes have been able to use the National Guard Training Site north of Bethany Beach, which she said has been a fabulous experience.
“The National Guard is great. It’s so safe. We used to go on the street, but that got so dangerous.”
Grotto Pizza in Bethany Beach also supports Sussex Riptide.
“They always reserve tables for us. After every last practice, we tend to go there for pizza. Shawn is the manager there, and he’s just a really good guy.”
McIntosh also praised the Ocean View Police Department, which hosts parties for the athletes and has provided them with police escorts for bike parades.
“OVPD is the top — really, really good guys.”
McIntosh has been volunteering at the camp at least 15 years and has encouraged her friends to do the same.
“The helpers out there, the people in crafts and archery, are tennis friends. Some of them have been here for four, five years. They just come, pitch in and help; it’s great!” she said, noting that there were volunteers from both Sea Colony and Bayside Tennis Club in attendance.
“A lot of the counselors, like Marie and several others here with us, are Hall-of-Famers,” noted Buzby. “We have three Hall-of-Famers here and a fourth going in. These are people who have been entrenched in our organization for years and do so much already. We would never ask them to come to camp, yet here they are. It says a lot about the people camp attracts and also the value of having this camp.”
Camp is offered to all registered SODE athletes, and while there is no age restriction, Buzby said they recommend campers be at least 15 before they attend.
“It’s not a hard-and-fast rule… but what we found was with the 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds, we spent so much time handling homesickness and all that other stuff that it took away from the other campers.”
And he said camp, like anything else in life, is not for everyone.
“What I would tell a parent is the same thing I would tell a parent of any child, even without a disability. Overnight camp, which is what this is, is a great experience for a child who is ready physically, socially and emotionally to have that experience. And, a lot goes into that. I have two boys at home. One would be perfect, and the other one would be homesick.
“I think we give them the best camp experience that their child with an intellectual disability can have in the area. But, that being said, camp is not for everyone. It’s important that someone coming for the first time and parents understand that.”
Buzby said if parents are unsure if the camp is a good fit for their SODE athlete, they should consider requesting to visit during the day.
“If a parent called me up and said, ‘…Not sure about next year,’ I’d say, ‘You should come check it out.’ I think it’s important for parents and the camper to know what they’re getting into.
But the great part of camp is that it’s truly a summer-camp experience that impacts those who attend.
“They get the exact same thing that any camper gets out of being at camp — they get to meet new friends; they get to experience new activities. Just today, I saw someone get into a kayak for the first time. I saw somebody sit on the dunk tank for the first time, and that’s all she’s talked about since that happened. I’ve seen somebody shoot a bow and arrow for the first time.
“It’s those types of experiences that the athletes get that, without this camp, obviously, they’re not going to get, because the people I’m talking about are not 10 or 15 years old. They’re 30 and 40 and 50 years old, experiencing that for the first time. They get an opportunity to be away from their parents. I guarantee you every camper who leaves here tomorrow has grown up a little bit from when they arrived yesterday in some way, even if they can’t define it.”
“It’s just nice, because one of the big things is you don’t have to be a top-notch athlete. You just have to love what you do. And you have to be able to make friends in a setting that is unfamiliar, with people in your cabin with whom you’re not familiar,” echoed McIntosh. “It teaches them a lot, just from the social interactions and the taking turns. The different experiences they have, I can’t tell you... They’re just joyful! And it’s fun to watch.”
Student volunteers learn life lessons, too
Another great part about the camp, organizers said, is that high school and college students volunteer during the two sessions. This year, 25 students attended.
“The counselors develop a greater understanding and appreciation of their peers with disabilities, and it serves as a tremendous lesson that all people are more alike than different. There’s no greater tribute to our athletes than the fact that many of our counselors come back year after year to spend the three days at camp with them,” said Kylie Frazer, director of school and youth initiatives.
“What they learn is our athletes are no different than they are. Some sleep very well, some toss and turn. Some snore, some don’t. Some are picky eaters, some will eat anything. Some don’t like to be away from home, others can’t wait to get dropped off. It’s funny to talk to and hear the stories … of how even the staff can relate — ‘Oh, when I used to go to camp, I would get homesick.’ It’s been fun to see the interactions,” added Buzby.
Wilmington University sophomore Dominique Spencer first got involved in SODE while she was in 10th grade at William Penn High School
“I went to a leadership conference with a Spanish teacher… We went back to high school and got involved in the Unified program and just never got out of it.”
Spencer was so inspired by her experience in the program that she is currently studying elementary education, aiming for a special certificate in special education.
“I love to watch people learn new things. So, when you come here and see all these people make all of these accomplishments that they never thought that they would make, and when you’re with them and they do things they never thought they would do, you’re a part of that. Today, one had never been in a dunk tank, and they were 35… Just all the small things that happen.”
Spencer has attended the camp for the past three years and said she continues to return because of “the positivity, the excitement and the same kids come back every year. It’s almost like the same group of family comes every year.”
Getting the chance to meet and know students with intellectual disabilities in high school was a wonderful experience for Spencer, she said.
“No one is different — that’s the biggest thing. Everyone is together,” she said. “I wish I would’ve had it in elementary school. It teaches acceptance at a very young age, because once you get to high school, everyone has their insults. But when you expose a child to such gifts at a young age, they realize the importance of everyone, with and without disabilities.”
Gary Cimaglia Jr., 17, a student at Poly Technical High School, became involved with SODE because his father is the director of sports for the organization.
“My dad works for Special Olympics. He encouraged me to come, and my sister did, too. I got here and I liked it, so I’ve kept coming back.”
Cimaglia said he loved being able to interact with the campers on a one-on-one level.
“I think it’s very important, because the interaction teaches us while we’re young that people are going to be different from us but you should still accept everyone for who they are. I think it’s an important learning experience for everyone.
Both students said they would encourage anyone and everyone to become involved in SODE in some way.
“I always tell my friends they should come along to camp,” said Cimaglia. “I just think this is lots of fun. There are great people, and it’s a great environment for everybody.”
“Donate your time and volunteer,” added Spencer simply.