DeKALB – Kaitlyn King spent the past seven summers volunteering and working at Camp Maple Leaf, an integrated summer day camp that includes campers of all ages and abilities.
King, 19, of Sycamore, has enjoyed watching friendships form between campers and also forming her own lasting relationships when she returns year after year.
“I really like how it’s a place for campers with special needs, but there are also so many campers without special needs,” she said.
She said her brother, Daniel, 21, has been a camper there as long as she can remember, but it didn’t dawn on her to volunteer until a friend’s neighbor who organizes the camp suggested it.
Suzie Zeeh is the director of the Kishwaukee Special Recreation Association, which organizes the camp through the DeKalb, Sycamore and Genoa park districts.
She said the camp, which has been around for more than three decades, is at capacity this summer for the first time in many years with 80 campers and 25 volunteers.
She said it’s the only camp in the county that caters specifically to campers with special needs while including campers without special needs in the same activities. The seven-week camp kicked off Monday with swimming, crafts, sports and games at Hopkins Park in DeKalb.
Tracy Hengels, one of the camp directors, said the benefit of an integrated camp is kids who don’t have special needs can see they’re just like kids who do have special needs because they participate in the same activities.
She said it’s important for special needs children to socialize with others because it’s sometimes difficult to make friends. Camp Maple Leaf gives them a place to interact with kids their own age who may face some of the same struggles, she said, and it’s also a place where they know they won’t be judged.
“[Parents] know that their child is receiving the same experience anybody else’s child would,” Hengels said. “They know they can be like anybody else – that their disability doesn’t hold them back.”
Camp director Julie Craig said campers range in age from 4 years old to campers in their 30s. Programming for older campers centers on life skills such as helping with shopping for the camp.
Her daughter, Kayla Craig, 17, went from being a camper to a volunteer. She has septo-optic dysplasia, a birth defect that affects her brain and vision. She spent three years as a camper, and this is her third summer volunteering.
“It’s kind of like you’re setting yourself up for a job,” she said. “If you volunteer for a couple of years, you can hopefully get a job.”
Zeeh said many volunteers want to go into career fields to help people with special needs. Others realize they’re interested in those fields, and she noted some volunteers even have changed their college majors.
Volunteering at Camp Maple Leaf has inspired King and staff member Mary Stang, 19, of Sycamore, to pursue careers in speech pathology and special education, respectively. Stang happened to live next door to Zeeh, which is how she and King got involved.
“I think Camp Maple Leaf helped both of us decide what we want to do,” Stang said. “If I hadn’t been exposed to this camp, I probably wouldn’t have gone that route.”