Editor's Note: The print article acknowledges the Sunderland Church as owner and proprietor of Camp Ondawa. It is in fact a privately owned camp ground operated by a board of directors.
ARLINGTON -- United Counseling Services of Bennington County is holding its annual "Gathering Place Camp" this week at Camp Ondawa, which is offered to clients of UCS Developmental Services, empowering intellectually-disabled adults with ideals of fun, freedom and responsibility.
The "Gathering Place Camp" is a one-week overnight camp in the first week of August every year that UCS Employment Manager Howie Wright began in 2006, when funding was cut for developmental services camps.
After beginning with just a few overnight campers in 2006, interest among UCS clients has grown. Since the camp is for adults over the age of 18, they are welcome to come and go as they are able to.
Anywhere from 40 to 60 clients go to Camp Ondawa in Arlington for lunch and day camp activities on any given day. About 20 take bunks in cabins to stay for a campfire and sleepover.
"The really cool part about this is that a lot of these clients don't see a lot of each other," Wright said. "But, when they are here, it's just one big happy group: They share and they play ball."
The campers are given the freedom to choose the activities they want to do, and give feedback for the schedule for the following year.
"This camp is for them: They eat good, they eat what they want," Wright said. "I said to them ‘you make the menu: Whatever you want, we'll do.' Well, they wanted steak and shrimp. I said, ‘yeah I'll have steak and shrimp.' But, then a couple of them approached me and asked what shrimp was. It's cool because some of them get to try something for the first time."
As a camper, hunter and fisherman who normally works in the UCS office, Wright said the camp is something he looks forward to every year, with the help from four to eight other counselors every day.
"I honestly think I get more out of this than they do," Wright said.
Throughout the week, activities include everything from Zumba exercise and dance, tie dye, and art, to bocce ball and soccer tournaments.
Since taking up the camp, Wright has sought different outlets for fundraising every year. He said it's a good opportunity to teach the clients about responsibility and making the camp self-reliant.
The Developmental Services clients get together every year to bake brownies for a bake sale and run a car wash for a day to raise money for the camp.
"We just try to raise funds throughout the year; We do whatever we can do," Wright said. "The biggest part of it is teaching the clients the responsibilities of this camp. You can eat all the food you want, but this camp costs money so you can't waste anything."
Camp Ondawa is an independent co-ed summer camp for the remainder of the season, run by a board of directors. It rests on 17 acres of land on the border of Arlington and Sunderland. The directors have allowed UCS to take the camp for one week every year for one low flat rate.
Wright said he takes care of minor repair and grounds maintenance while he's there, and tries to instill that mindfulness in the clients.
When Wright first began the camp, he would make up lists of camp chores to assign clean up tasks to each individual, but has not needed to do so since. Every camper knows what needs to be done and helps without question.
The "Gathering Place Camp" is open to all clients of UCS Developmental Services clients. There are many specific needs and demands for medical attention from some of the adult campers. Wright said that nevertheless, UCS will accommodate them with as much staff as they need, and wants every client to at some point join the camp.
"No matter the intensiveness of care or severity, I want all clients to experience this: Even if it's just for an hour during the day," Wright said. "Everyone is welcome."
To learn more about UCS, its services or to learn how you can volunteer for events like the "Gathering Place Camp," visit online at http://www.ucsvt.org/.
Contact Tom Momberg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomMomberg