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Fall 2006
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Aimee Foushee (left) with Ability First Sports Camp participant Angela Musa
Photo by Thomas Del Brase

Putting Ability First

Ability First Sports Camp changes lives of North State children with disabilities

Harnessed into an adaptive rig that allows quadriplegics like him to climb, John* used every bit of the little arm strength he had to work his way up the climbing wall. It took extraordinary persistence and will to inch himself to the top. As he pulled himself up the last few inches, the crowd below exploded with cheers and someone called out, “Ring the bell!” John knocked it with his head and yelled, “Right on!” In that moment, everything changed for him.

John was at the Ability First Sports Camp at California State University, Chico for the first time. Just 17 years old, he’d broken his neck during a wrestling match months earlier and was paralyzed from the neck down. Resistant and depressed, he believed his life was over and hadn’t wanted to come to camp at all, but his parents had insisted.

After mastering the climbing wall, John’s attitude and outlook took an optimistic turn. He participated wholeheartedly in camp that summer, then returned and served as a role model to younger campers the following year.
(*not his real name)

Co-director of Ability First Sports Camp Laura McLachlin tells John’s story to illustrate the kind of moments that occur during the one-week camp. Those moments accumulate until they, literally, change lives. The camp, for children ages 8–17 with physical disabilities, takes place each summer at CSU, Chico. The campers gain self-respect, new ways of coping, a social network unlike any they’ve had before, and new possibilities for sports and activity in their lives.

Unbreakable bonds
Not surprisingly, the lives of the CSU, Chico students and alums who act as day and night counselors are also changed. Aimee Foushee, a therapeutic recreation major, was a day counselor for the first time this past summer. She felt alone and shy as the campers and their families streamed into Esken Hall on the first day. She found herself by a 10-year-old girl, and they entered the gym together for the first assembly. The girl asked her name and about her major and whether this was her first time at camp.

“It was like talking to a younger sister, and that’s how it was for the rest of camp,” says Foushee. “What surprised me was that I hadn’t expected that the person who would answer my questions and befriend me would be a young camper in a wheelchair and not one of my peers.”

Foushee’s ideas about children with disabilities were challenged dozens of times over the next week. One of the biggest surprises, she says, was “how confident and happy they were and how like able-bodied kids in their happiness. I really did end up forgetting about the wheelchairs.”

Scott Dinits (BA, Organizational Communication, ’07), currently the human resource recruiter for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the North Valley, has worked as a night counselor for three years with Ability First. He heard about the camp through the Boys & Girls Clubs (a co-sponsor of the camp with the Therapeutic Recreation option in the Department of Recreation and Parks Management), where he volunteered when he was in college.

The first day of camp is always on Father’s Day, says Dinits, and it was touching to watch the dads give their kids a hug and send them off.

The campers and staff also become very close during the week, says Dinits. “It is so intimate. You have to depend on the person by you to make it a success. The bond that was created between members of the staff, coaches, and the participants was unbreakable.”

A can-do attitude
The camp, says Dinits, isn’t about disability, but about ability—campers learning how to use the abilities that they have most effectively. That is true for each camper, no matter what his or her disability, says Dinits. “There are youth with spina bifida and cerebral palsy, paraplegia and quadriplegia as a result of broken backs, and many others. The aim of the camp is to increase their independence no matter what their level. The idea is to help them become successful adults. They are pushed to the limits.”

All of the coaches use wheelchairs. Some of the coaches were born with their disabilities, and some became disabled. Some were professional athletes who were hurt while playing their sport. “There was an extreme snowboarder, an extreme skateboarder who had broken his back, and a water skier,” says Dinits. “Exposing the campers to these people begins breaking down the myths about what is possible for people with disabilities.”

Once those myths are broken, says Dinits, the campers begin realizing that so much more is possible. “When no one has reached out to show you, you don’t know,” he explains. “Just by doing a sport, by climbing the climbing wall or waterskiing, they begin seeing that other things are possible.”

The lives of the campers and counselors intertwine during the camp. “You are learning so much more from them than they are from you. You are there to mentor and counsel, but it’s hard not to be in awe of their passion and courage and tenacity,” says Dinits.

He remembered one camper at the climbing wall who had only one strong arm with which to pull himself. He was straining, lifting, and sweating, and everyone was yelling, “You can do it!” “I got goose bumps because I couldn’t imagine doing that—I would have given up!” says Dinits.

Grace and spirit
Jennifer Morgan, a graduate student in kinesiology with an emphasis in adaptive physical education, volunteered for the first time last summer. As a night counselor, she helped the campers with everything that needed doing.

On skit night, Morgan’s group of girls decided that they would do a dance. Morgan has a minor in dance, and it might have been easy to do too much for them, but she told them, “I’ll give you some movements and some timing cues, but you are going to pick the song, hold the rehearsal, make up the dance.”

Ten girls—nine in wheelchairs, one using a walker—entered the small stage. “They had their backs turned,” says Morgan, “and as the music came on, they started to dance. When they turned around, it was climactic. One girl sang into the microphone and got the crowd involved. Everyone was singing and dancing.

“Afterward, the high you get with performing? They had it!” adds Morgan. “Although the social activities aren’t the focus of the camp, I think they may have as much impact as a soccer game.”

Morgan, like Dinits, talks about a spirit and positive attitude that the campers share. “So many campers had the best personalities—funny, making humor out of everything, teasing others and themselves,” says Morgan. “There was one girl with spastic cerebral palsy who called herself ‘Captain Spaz.’ She was 18 years old, beautiful, and confined to a chair. She had a note of confidence that is unique with a condition like that.”

Sometimes, the counselors reported, there are kids who are used to being taken care of and are demanding. Helping these campers help themselves is promoted during camp staff and counselor training. The trainers told them that sometimes not helping is the best thing they can do. “You are encouraging these children to be independent in a firm and positive way,” says Morgan.

Where there’s a will
Ability First Sports Camp is one of only three such camps in the country, according to McLachlin. “We focus on both sports and socialization for kids with physical disabilities, including those who have some pretty severe disabilities,” she says. “Most of our kids would not qualify for other camps because of medical issues.”

The camp now serves up to 40 children and has three nurses on staff. It began as a one-day camp 22 years ago, when it was founded by Eric Snedeker, then the coordinator of CSU, Chico’s adaptive physical education program. McLachlin has been involved with the camp since 1989. Over those years, she has seen the camp become more costly to run.

“Finding money poses a greater challenge,” she says. “We do a lot of grant writing to foundations such as Christopher Reeve’s. We do a lot of fund-raising—Christmas tree sales, working with local businesses on projects, and sometimes just telling people we run into who have a heart for kids with disabilities. We work on it throughout the year.”

McLachlin also is seeing a more diverse set of campers with more severe impairments. “The good thing is that people are hearing about us and the valuable things we do—we have nursing staff and can take medically fragile kids,” says McLachlin. “We are finding a way to get more of them to camp.”

Being part of the camp puts life in perspective, says Dinits. “Here are kids who weren’t given a choice about their abilities. No self-doubt, no self-pity. They simply enjoy living life. And for me, to be part of that is a gift.”