“At Camp SOAR, the second you walk up to the door, you know the feeling of happiness and love,” says Cady Lake resident and Special Olympics athlete Kimberly Jones.
Jones, 27, has been attending Camp Special Olympics Athletic Retreat for seven years.
“I love all the staff there,” said Jones, who also loves to swim, bowl and play bingo, bocce, floor hockey and tennis. “I look forward to every year.”
Jones said that she also looks forward to a dance at the end of the day on Fridays. “It’s the big bang,” she said. “I love dancing with all my friends.”
Camp SOAR at the Levine Jewish Community Center in Shalom Park is a free camp for Special Olympics athletes and potential athletes with intellectual disabilities. Campers range from 12 to 72 years old and attend three days of camp in two sessions, from June 15-19.
Session I is for athletes age 26 or older, and Session II is for athletes age 12 through 25.
Founded by Bob Bowler in 2000, Camp SOAR has seen the number of campers and volunteers grow every year. In 2014, there were 400 volunteers and 338 campers; in 2015, Bowler anticipates more than 500 volunteers and 360 campers.
Each camper is paired up with a volunteer “buddy,” who helps them and cheers them on as they take part in camp activities.
“Volunteers have life-changing experiences and many decide to become special ed teachers, social and case workers, recreational and occupational therapists,” wrote Bowler in an email.
Volunteer Nancy Callaway said, “The whole idea of Camp SOAR is to introduce people to the sports that Special Olympics offers, give them a taste of it, learn the basics of the sport, try it out and see if it’s something they want to continue.”
Callaway is the mother of Special Olympics athlete Robin Callaway. About six years ago, Robin Callaway volunteered at Camp SOAR before deciding to become a camper instead; she has been a camper since.
In an email, Robin Callaway wrote that she participates each year to check out the sports offerings and consider activities she has not tried before, as well as to see her friends.
“I also spread the word out to pals of mine that this camp is free and fun, too!” she wrote.
“One of the secrets of Camp SOAR’s success is that each year, through Bob’s tireless efforts, we offer new activities including this year’s heavier emphasis on fitness,” wrote Camp SOAR volunteer and media relations coordinator Al Tinson.
Fitness activities include chair yoga, aerobics and dance.
“For the first time,” Bowler wrote, “we are promoting unified bowling where the buddies will bowl with their camper to encourage teamwork and bonding with each other, creating self-confidence and improving self-esteem.”
A benefit of the buddy system and of unification is the bonding and friendships that take place between the campers and the volunteers. Additionally, emphasis on the campers’ positive outlook and their abilities, rather than focusing on their disabilities, might help break down misconceptions of those with intellectual disabilities, according to Bowler.
“The camp helps to eliminate bullying and encourage inclusion and acceptance with everyone,” Bowler said.
This year, Camp SOAR continues to offer activities including fitness, computer lab, arts and crafts.
Therapy dogs are a daily fixture as well.
“We hope that the campers will engage in these activities on a regular basis after camp to improve their quality of life,” Bowler said. “With the attention to better fitness programs, the camp is trying to eliminate obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and boredom.”
Marissa Brooks is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Marissa? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information about Camp SOAR, visit www.sonc.net/camp-soar.