Nebraska summer camp for disabled people marks 50 years
By MARA KLECKER
Jul. 29, 2017
CEDAR BLUFFS, Neb. (AP) — Even before the helmet was on his head and the harness around his hips, Larry Wolfe was grinning. He knew the few moments when he could rise into the sky, leaving his motorized wheelchair far below was coming.
As Wolfe, 45, was lifted into the air by a pulley system dubbed the "flying squirrel," he stretched his arms out and started to laugh.
From the shade of a picnic shelter nearby, fellow Easterseals camper Dave Walter, 54, shouted encouragement.
After decades of coming to this camp, and after seeing it change and grow and staff come and go, Wolfe and Walter said there's one thing that won't change: As long as Easterseals offers a camp for adults with disabilities, they'll be there.
This year marks the 50th that the organization has offered a summer camp for people with disabilities, the Omaha World-Herald reported . Walter has showed up for more than 45 of those years, Wolfe for 35.
"It's pretty awesome to see how much these guys love it here," said Jami Biodrowski, director of camp, respite and recreation. "They get to come to camp for their whole lives."
For eight weeks, the organization rents Camp Eagle near Cedar Bluffs, offering 11 camp sessions for a range of disabilities and age groups. Wolfe and Walter attended the session for adults ages 30 and older. In an all-ages day camp earlier this summer, one camper was 85 years old.
For a week, the adult campers swim and fish and canoe. They ride horses and roast marshmallows and play games and make crafts.
"My favorite part is everything," Walter said. For him, it's less about the activities and more about the people at camp. "I just like to hang out here and relax with friends."
Walter was born with spina bifida and has arthrogryposis, a condition that makes it difficult for him to bend his joints. He enjoys his independence and stays busy answering phones at Community Alternatives Nebraska and volunteering at Bryan Medical Center's west campus, both in Lincoln.
But the highlight of his year, Walter said, is when he gets a little vacation at camp.
"He starts asking about it in January," said his mom, Marcia Walter. "When he was a kid we couldn't even tell him about camp ahead of time because he'd be way too excited."
Walter's mom and Wolfe's mom remember that first summer decades ago — the first time each dropped off her son at camp.
"I was so worried," said Peggy Wolfe. "It was hard to leave him, but he had so much fun that first year, and it's gotten better every year. It's hard to get him to leave. He would definitely stay there forever if he could."
Larry Wolfe has cerebral palsy and lives at home with his mom and her boyfriend in Lincoln. When at camp, he leaves his communication device at home and uses gestures and eye movements to talk to his counselor, Lucy Kohmetscher, 20.
Kohmetscher has been one of the best parts of camp for Larry, Peggy Wolfe said. This summer is Kohmetscher's fourth at camp and her second as Larry's counselor. In the off-season she often hangs out with Larry, taking him to the mall or a movie and offering Peggy a little respite time.
"People don't realize how important it is that these people get a week of independence but also a week away from their caregivers," Peggy said.
That time gives the caregivers a break, too; while Larry was at camp this year, Peggy took a vacation to see an old friend in Minneapolis.
"That camp and the group of people there is really a blessing to everyone involved," Peggy said.
Kohmetscher and the other counselors spend the whole summer at camp, serving as both counselors and caregivers.
"I always tell them it's the hardest job they'll ever love," Biodrowski said.
Kohmetscher uses the word "love" often when she talks about her work with Camp Easterseals. She loves to give campers a chance to have new experiences. She loves seeing how everyone at camp can forget about their differences. And she loves hearing Wolfe's laugh — especially as he's flying high above his wheelchair on the flying squirrel.
"Larry and I both think the weeks here just go by too quickly," Kohmetscher said.
At the end of the week the campers and counselors gather in the lodge and dance. They share their favorite camp memories and pass out awards.
This year, Walter and Wolfe shared the title of "camp celebrities."
Before the campers head back to their cabins on that last night, the dance ends with the song "Stand by Me" and usually a lot of tears.
But Walter doesn't cry.
After all, he said, "I always know I'll be back next year."
Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com