Story by Tyler eagle
Photos by Tom Hawley

Every year, William Hicks eagerly waits for the academic year to end. Although the 9-year-old Raisinville Elementary School student generally likes school, he enjoys spending his summers at camp more.

Whether it’s hanging out with friends or working with the counselors, the young boy embraces the short time he gets to spend at Holiday Camp.

“It’s like I get a little vacation,” he said.

Tucked away in Raisinville Township along the River Raisin, Holiday Camp is open from mid-June to mid-August. While it hosts many of the same things found at any summer camp, its mission is a little more altruistic than others — it serves students in Monroe County who have disabilities.

Owned and administrated by Monroe County Intermediate School District, a diverse set of students attend, ranging from those with cognitive disabilities to those with physical ones, said Michelle Brahaney, assistant superintendent of MCISD.

Michelle, who also serves as liaison to the Holiday Camp Board — a special fundraising body — said about 60 campers attend each session of the camp. During the summer, the camp runs two three-week sessions for youth as old as 18 and a two-week session for adults 18 or older.

“I work all across the state of Michigan in my role [at MCISD] and there is nothing like this for kids,” she said.

The campus houses a dining hall and a building dedicated to arts and crafts. Winding paths provide ample opportunity for campers to ride their bikes and a stage designed to be easily accessible stands in the center of the camp. There is a pool, a basketball court, playground equipment — much of which is designed for the disabled — and even a dock that sits on the river so students can go canoeing.

Camp attendees are all residents of Monroe County and several of them receive transportation from Lake Erie Transit. The cost of attendance is $110 per camper per session.

Many local groups get involved with the camp, whether it’s helping counselors plan activities with the campers or cooking a meal in the dining hall. Participating groups have included Dundee Rotary Club, the Boy Scouts and Monroe Kiwanis, as well as many church groups.

Several agencies and the camp’s board work to raise money toward the $80,000 needed to fund the camp’s operations — which include funding from donations, MCISD and other agencies. Michelle said Holiday Camp exemplifies teamwork and collaboration between multiples agencies, such as the United Way of Monroe County, which is a partner with MCISD.

“It’s really a community. Anyone who wants to be involved, we find a place for them at camp,” Michelle said. “People come together to provide opportunities for kids who wouldn’t have had them otherwise — they just wouldn’t have this. It’s one of a kind.”

Barbara Bacarella acts as president of the Holiday Camp Board, a body that she has served on for 10 years. Her involvement extends past simple fundraising, though, as her family has a more personal connection to Holiday Camp. Barbara’s son, Alex, 23, has been spending his summers there since he was 9.

“There isn’t a better cause,” she said. “It’s kind of my heart.”

Alex is mostly nonverbal and tends to keep to himself, she said. The experience gives him an opportunity to have more social interaction in a supportive environment.

Like most of the campers, Alex loves swimming in the pool and art time. He also enjoys listening to music, which is why he looks forward to the camp’s music shows. Alex enjoys playing the drums and performing for the group, Bacarella said.

“That’s when he shines,” she added. “That’s my favorite time — when he gets to interact with other kids.”

Getting to watch his students have moments such as the one that Alex experiences is special to Holiday Camp Director Josh Vance and makes his work even more gratifying.

“The look on their face when they’ve accomplished something — the joy and happiness they get, that one moment makes all the hard work worth it,” Josh said. “No matter the day, it could be the longest day we’ve had, it’s all worth it.”

Josh is in his third year at the camp. He oversees its day-to-day operations, enrollment process and makes sure the camp is in compliance with state and federal regulations. During the academic year, he is a physical education teacher at MCISD.

He looks forward to getting to spend one-on-one time with the campers. When he is too bogged down with his duties, he looks out his window, which overlooks the pool, and enjoys the sounds of students laughing and playing.

The opportunity for students with disabilities to have a summer camp experience is unique, he says, and the chance to socialize is priceless. The students forge friendships with the counselors and each other. Although they may not get to see each other during the school year, Holiday Camp is the bridge that brings them back together.

“The bonds and relationships continue year after year with our returning campers — I’ve seen that through our kids camp and the adult camp,” Josh said. “That family community feel is awesome — I love it.”

Shane Rogers, 8, has attended camp for two summers. It’s a chance to play with friends he doesn’t always get to see during the school year, like William.

“I can do backflips and play frisbee and basketball,” Shane said. “I can be with my friends. They kind of make me happy a lot. They do cool things and I can play with them more.”

Friendships extend beyond the campers, though. Holiday Camp Office Administrator Teri Frye said the experience can also be helpful for families that can feel isolated raising a disabled child.

“It makes for a good support system for families to know their child isn’t the only one,” Teri said. “I’ve seen families become friends and support each other.”

Counselors are invested in the students’ success. Several of the counselors have been working at Holiday Camp for multiple summers, many of them returning because of the friendships they build with campers.

“Kids just approach life with zest and they live in the moment. To be able to witness that is a gift,” Michelle said. “They know the counselors care about them — what’s better than that?”

There are 25 staff members at the camp — all are CPR and first-aid trained. Some are employed by MCISD as teachers while others are college students pursuing a degree in special education or a related field, such as speech pathology.

For 11 years, Amber Dietrich has dedicated a large part of her summer to the camp, starting when she was a student at Ida High School.

She currently serves as a counselor, but has also been a volunteer. Starting this fall, she also will be a teacher at MCISD. So inspired by her experience and interactions with the students at the camp, she decided to change her major in college from elementary education to special education.

“It completely changed my path in life,” she said.

Amber mainly works with the older students. One of the benefits of the camp is that it can help provide a sense of belonging to campers in addition to entertainment and fun, she said. While she prefers arts and crafts, she said her campers mostly like to hang out and listen to music — and also play their favorite card game.

“Their favorite thing to do is play UNO,” she said. “We get some serious UNO games going.”

William, Shane and Alex aren’t the only campers to come back each year. During the school year Josh is often asked about Holiday Camp and told how much former campers are looking forward to next summer’s sessions.

Since he began at the camp, Josh has seen about 10 students transition from the youth sessions to the adult ones. He is often told stories about the connections the students have made and how students look forward to it each year.

“That shows me how much an impact the experience has on campers — it’s a motivation for what we do,” Josh said.

William is a testament to those connections. Enamored with its staff — and more importantly the pool — he hopes to one day become a more permanent fixture at the camp when he grows older.

“I want to become a worker at Holiday Camp,” he said. “That would make me happy.”