Kids can and do: Camp continues to create unique experiences for kids with special needs

Published 11:11 am Saturday, July 15, 2017

PERRYVILLE — Kids with special needs were once again hosted this past week by Camp Can Do, an offering through the pediatric center by the same name that is part of Ephraim McDowell Health, paid for by its foundation. 

Wednesday, Vanessa Welty and Ellen Scalf, camp co-directors, were on site at the day camp, located at Camp Horsin’ Around in Perryville. They were set up down by the pond, situated down the hill from the main offices. Kids are kayaking, fishing and laughing near the water. 

In her eighth year as director, Welty says the camp has changed tremendously from when it first was offered earlier in the 2000s and held at the Wellness Center. 

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“We just didn’t have the space for it before, so it was completely revamped in 2010, and having it at Camp Horsin’ Around has made the biggest difference in the world.” 

The camp has five to six therapists on site daily, and up to 20 volunteers at any given time. They offer it Monday-Thursday in half-day increments, as a morning or an afternoon camp and split up according to ages. Welty says because of some of the campers’ medical conditions, it’s just not practical to offer an overnight camp. 

“Some of the campers will talk about their special needs when they’re here, some don’t. Some just see this as a camp they get to go to every year,” Welty said. 

One of the most important things the camp offers, she says, is a one-on-one buddy system. Every camper is assigned a buddy — a volunteer who has gone through the orientation process of how to assist a special needs child. It’s something that puts parents’ minds at ease, Welty says. 

Bobbie Curd/

Buddy Caden Diaz walks to the creek with camper Beeler Mardis.

The buddies wear green shirts with a large “BUDDY” printed on the back of them, and can be seen throughout the camp, sometimes walking hand-in-hand with their buddies, or helping them vest up to get in a kayak or fish. 

“My favorite thing to do is swim,” Gage Phillips, 9, says. Gage is from Lincoln County and has been a camper for at least five years. He wears white glasses which stand out against his dark hair and is suited up for water fun — vest and all. 

“We’ve known him since he was a baby, and let me tell you — he’s faced his fears with so many things,” Welty says about Gage.

Welty and a few other staff members ask Gage where his girlfriend is, who quickly responds he doesn’t have one. They joke around with him a bit and Gage finally says, “We broke up.” 

Veronika Bailey, 14, a volunteer with the camp for the first time, says after what she has seen in only one week, she knows she will return to donate her time. “I kind of noticed that when they first get here, they’re kind of sad at first. Then it’s nice when you see them smile,” she says. 

“It’s good to get them out here, any kids, really, but especially important for special needs kids,” Welty says. 

Caden Diaz fishes from a pontoon with camper Beeler Mardis; both are quiet and focused on their casting. Welty says Diaz has a sister who attends the afternoon camp, and he approached them about volunteering. 

Bobbie Curd/
From left, buddies Megan Murphy and Landrea Smith hold on to camper Chyianne Gaddis, 9, of Junction City, and they finish tromping through the creek together.

A couple of the kids run up to staff members and say they’ve had enough out in the heat and want to head back up the hill. This is common; Welty says a lot of kids just aren’t accustomed to the heat because they spend so much time inside, staying on their phones. 

“Several who are scared to swim, so fearful when they get here — by the end of the week, they love it and don’t want to get out. The pool is the big deal around here,” says co-director Scalf, who’s helped with camp for about five years. 

A staff member loads several kids up on a small ATV with a wagon hooked to it, and carts them even further down another hill to the swinging bridge and creek. 

“It’s also awesome to see them make friends. A lot of special needs kids don’t have the same opportunities that other kids have,” Scalf says. “It’s so great to see them make new friends and playdates they keep even after camp.”

Scalf says another great part of the camp is how the adults tend to connect; this can become a sort of support group for them.

“It’s good for them to meet other parents, become friends … We even have a group of moms who do things together while their kids are at camp together, like go to the movies.”

Chyianne Gaddis, 9, of Junction City, comes slowly across the swinging bridge, holding a rope and the hand of her buddy, volunteer Landrea Smith. 

“I love it here because of her,” Chyianne says, pointing to Smith. “And I want to know, I asked my grandma, what kind of a name is Landrea anyway?” All of the staff and volunteers bust out laughing. They say although Chyianne says she’s “9 going on 10,” they think she’s sometimes 9 going on 50. 

“We have a good time together,” Smith says. 

Levi Stamper, 10, takes his turn crossing the bridge, and happily says it’s his favorite day at camp because it’s his birthday. Several kids are wading in the creek with their buddies helping them along the way. 

Bobbie Curd/

Camper Elizabeth Gauntt gets some support from buddy Brooke Hastings’ lap as they sit on a rock in the creek. Buddy Hannah Ingram helps keep her cool with water on the forehead.

Camper Elizabeth Gauntt is positioned in buddy Brooke Hastings’ lap as they sit atop a rock in the creek. Buddy Hannah Ingram helps support her, and dips her hand into the water several times and runs it across Elizabeth’s forehead. 

“We become family to them,” Scalf says. “And they’re family to us.” 

Editor’s note: To see more photos from Camp Kids Can Do and order prints, click here.