[HISTORY NOTE] Volunteers stepped up to provide children with camp experience

For many children, summertime means packing a suitcase and sleeping bag and heading off to camp. Children with disabilities have […]

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For many children, summertime means packing a suitcase and sleeping bag and heading off to camp. Children with disabilities have long enjoyed the chance to go to adaptive camps with swimming, games, crafts, songs around a campfire and other activities.

But more than 60 years ago, some young Minnesota campers with disabilities faced a dilemma. Camp Courage, which was then operated by the Minnesota Society for Crippled Children and Adults, had to turn away many children who wanted to attend camp.  The crowd of young campers was part of a large children and youth population.

The U.S. Census Bureau has defined “baby boomers” as people born between 1946 and 1964. The rapidly growing group of youngsters put a strain on all kinds of programs and services. Schools, clubs, children’s activities and summer camps were full.

As an experiment the society hastily set up eight additional camps around Minnesota in the summer of 1963. The camps operated as day camps, mostly with volunteers in charge.

Winona was one of the sites selected, with a day camp organized on Prairie Island. Its headquarters opened at the Izaak Walton cabin near there. A local woman, Mrs. Roger (Peg) Zehren, became the volunteer camp director.

Gretchen Lamberton, columnist for the Winona Daily News, wrote about the camps and the need for volunteers in June 1964. “This seems to be one of the most heart-warming and worthwhile projects ever undertaken in Winona,” Lamberton wrote.

Seventeen local children between the ages of 6 and 14 attended the Winona camp in summer 1963, according to the Daily News. The camp and others like it around the state were so successful, 30 camps were set up statewide for the summer 1964.
Winona again was a host for a 10-day day camp, with Zheren again in charge. She had three adult staffers and four student assistants as camp prepared to opened, but sought more helpers.

One goal was to have a helper for each child on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when campers went to Latsch Beach for swimming and sunbathing.  The Winona camp pulled in volunteers from the community. The Winona Lions Club provided transportation. Student volunteers from St. Mary’s College provided nature studies, along with adult community members. Others stepped up to teach handicrafts and lead playtimes. One local man brought his pet otters, to the delight of the campers.

After a sack lunch, more activities were offered. One treat was a trip to Kiddieland, courtesy of the Winona Jaycees. Campers also enjoyed a riverboat ride on another day. Many had never been on a boat before.

As of mid-June a dozen children enrolled in the 1964 camp. The ranks include four children with cerebral palsy, two deaf children, three with visual disabilities, one child with muscular dystrophy and two children who were post-polio. Lamberton wrote that there was room for more children to attend.

Today, setting up a camp takes careful planning with consent forms and detailed health histories for campers, extensive staff and volunteer training, accessible facilities and carefully thought-out activities. The notion of volunteers quickly pulling together a camp experience, especially for children with disabilities, is likely not something we’d see again.

The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at www.mnddc.org

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