Camp embraces individuals with disabilities

SUNDERLAND — The iconic childhood experience of summer camp isn't always accessible for differently abled individuals, but Bennington's United Counseling Services is determined to change that.

The Developmental Services division of UCS has hosted The Gathering Place Camp since 2006 to offer that experience to local individuals with developmental disabilities. The program, hosted at Camp Ondawa in Sunderland, brings together over 100 clients and staffers from UCS for a week of outdoor fun, crafts and relaxation.

"They get to spend time with each other, but also with us staff, in a different light," said camp coordinator Stephanie Shoff, a community support program manager with UCS's Developmental Services division. "It reminds me of a great, big family picnic."

"It's like home to me, I come up every year," said camper Lisa Rudiakov. "I like to hang out with my friends and we have a bocci tournament, do all sort of crafts, have bonfires, and just hang out."

While the experience at Camp Ondawa is full of typical summer experiences like bonfires and lawn games, campers can rest easy knowing that UCS staff is there for support.

"There's a nurse that's on sight from morning until evening to make sure all medications are taken and everything's good," said Shoff. "We also have med-certified staff to stay overnight just in case."

"They know us inside and out. They know if you have a problem, and they can help you," said Rudiakov. "You can just hang out without having to worry about anything."

The Developmental Services division of UCS, focusing on adults with developmental disabilities, says that the camp plays an important role in fostering a closer connection between staff and their clients.

"The staff here at night volunteer their time out of the kindness of their heart," said Shoff. "The staff gets to really relax and spend time with the clients as well, so we both benefit. People get closer at camp, and it carries over."

"It gives us a chance to kind of spend time with the people that we serve outside of the office, in a laid back context with no agenda," said Hannah Comar, a family services case manager in the Developmental Services division of UCS. "I personally like it because it gives us a chance to just relax, spend time with them, and see who they are past the paperwork."

For clients, the Gathering Place Camp represents an important step towards normal life.

"I like it because there's stuff to do around here," said camper Craig Silva. "Not everybody can get outside to camp, and it gives them a chance to do that."

"It's fun, I like cooking," said camper and grillmaster Harry Porter. "Today we're supposed to be cooking hot dogs and hamburgers."

More than anything, the friendships built at Camp Ondawa create a legacy that lasts well beyond summer months.

"It's just a wonderful group of people to hang out with," said Rudiakov. "I've been coming for many years, and if they ever decide not to do it I'd be very sad."

"It's very comforting that we're around a lot of people that are our friends, and people that we see basically every day," said Camper Mistie Peacock.

For Shoff, the experience represents an important step forward in terms of integration and equality.

"It's one more step toward integrating with everybody else. They spend the time with us and they interact the same way with people in the community," said Shoff. "Then the community gets to see us here doing this, and can see that these are fabulous people just like everybody else"

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.


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