A Need For Nature
Three local nonprofit organizations offer opportunities for creating outdoor memories for special-needs children.
A love of the outdoors drives three nonprofit organizations to create special opportunities for adults and children with special needs, children placed in foster care, and families with children suffering from life-threatening illnesses.
Camp Looking Glass
What makes summer camp? Well, it’s silly songs around a campfire. Finger-lickin’ s’mores. Pranks played on new friends. Take-home crafts. Adventure hikes. Learning new skills like horseback riding, disc golf, and swimming. Good food.
And that’s what campers enjoy at Camp Looking Glass, a camp with a specific niche: a camp for people with physical and intellectual disabilities.
“The goal is to have a camp experience exactly like other camp experiences,” says Natasha Abner, assistant director and board member.
“We do everything at this camp. Yes, we adapt some activities and buy some special equipment. We have a lot of volunteer support,” Abner says. “Volunteers make the activities that are physically, mentally, or socially challenging for the campers doable.”
For example, a mentor may help a camper think through and do the next step in an activity. About 25 campers come yearly for a week.
Founded in 2004, Camp Looking Glass offers sleep-away summer camps and year-round recreational activities to children and adults with disabilities in the Mississippi Delta area. Campers attend at no cost, because donations and grants provide the funding.
In her years as a volunteer counselor, Abner, has watched many campers return and has seen their confidence grow. Camp Looking Glass is unique because nobody ages out. The single requirement is to be old enough to sleep away from home. Parents and guardians aren’t allowed.
From its start, Camp Looking Glass rented the Leroy Percy State Park in Hollandale, Mississippi, each year. But summer 2019 heralds an exciting change. Camp Looking Glass is building its own camp on 11.2 acres in Greenville, Mississippi, and will have its first camp there this summer. Plans are already underway to add another week to the camp as soon as possible and to have more overnight events.
If the camp’s name sounds familiar, you’re right. It comes from the classic by Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.
“We want to change the way people with disabilities see themselves and the way America sees them,” Abner explains.
A child enters the foster care system and is assigned to a family. In an all too familiar scenario, and for a myriad of reasons, the child’s placement does not work out. The state puts the child in another family…and then another…and on and on. Each new family may mean a new school. The repetitive cycle may continue until age 19 when the child “ages out” of foster care.
Concerned about this national trend, Kaitlin Barnhart, 37, a social worker in Idaho, started taking foster care children she worked with on short trips and teaching them her skill: fly fishing. On social media she found that Jess Westbrook in Arkansas was doing something similar.
“We teamed up,” Barnhart says. “We’ve found that a child in foster care often has never been to the outdoors; the child may have entered a sport but has not had the chance to complete it.”
The Mayfly Project started in 2015. It’s done 20 projects so far in 15 states and has had 200 participating children. It’s expanding this year to Georgia, California, Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont, and Texas.
Named for an aquatic insect that fish find tasty, the Mayfly Project supplies the gear, transportation, mentoring, and teaching associated with fly fishing to foster care children. Its mission is to build relationships through fly fishing and introduce foster care children to their local water ecosystems. Funding comes through donations and grants.
Groups of about 10 children and 10 mentors meet for teaching sessions before starting the outings. A group’s size is determined by van space and the river site. “For safety, we have to be able to see each other down the river,” Barnhart explains.
The children learn things like casting, how to choose and tie a fly, and essentials like how to clean their boots and waders. While learning the sport of fly fishing, they’re taught to respect the environment.
One of the first things to master is what’s called “match the hatch,” which means to look at the water and see what eggs are rising to the top and match the life stage of the emerging insect.
“The skill in fly fishing comes with finding a fly in your box to match what you see. That’s what the fish are eating that day,” Barnhart says.
Time and time again Barnhart sees the children change. Studies indicate that fly fishing, or just getting outside, helps people with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), anxiety, and depression.
“Healing happens. A lot of healing happens when you’re outside,” she says.
Catch-A-Dream starts where Make-A-Wish stops.
Unexpectedly, Make-A-Wish, a foundation specializing in giving children with life-threatening illnesses a trip they’ve dreamed about, clarified its mission: trips will not allow weapons.
“That meant eliminating hunting and often fishing,” says Spencer Brunson, project manager for Catch-A-Dream, a Starkville, Mississippi, nonprofit.
So Catch-A-Dream stepped in, starting in 2000. It provides hunting or fishing experiences to children up through age 18 with life threatening illnesses. Families also attend. Often tallying $4,500, a trip’s cost covers gear, lodging, transportation, the outing itself, and tannery charges; outings frequently last four or five days.
“The families have no expenses or responsibilities,” Brunson says. “A lot of the children we get have never hunted or fished.”
Catch-A-Dream makes a wish like a deep sea fishing excursion in the Gulf, fly-fishing for trout in Montana or Colorado, elk hunting in Wyoming, and a moose hunt in Maine come true.
“We work with partners in the US and Canada. It is best if the family comes. That means brothers and sisters and parents,” Brunson says.
In practical terms that means for the first time in years, the whole family may have a break from the ongoing stress of an illness. The family leaves behind juggling schedules, cooking, and to-do lists. Everybody comes and enjoys.
Overnights are in a hotel instead of camping in the wild or bunking aboard a sea vessel. For the trip’s duration, the child is near a hospital.
“Generally, a candidate is in the middle of treatment for a very serious situation and has a positive outlook,” Brunson says.
Referrals come from social workers across the States and Canada. Outfitters donate their time and expertise.
A host family meets the Catch-A-Dream family at the airport. “We tell the mom and dad, ‘As soon as you get on that plane, we’ve got you covered,’” Brunson smiles. He knows many memories, good ones, will be made.
Volunteers, whom the foundation calls Friends, serve by raising funds and promoting awareness of the concept.