Helmets and safety harnesses hardly seemed adequate for the children preparing to walk the high ropes course at Camp Accomplish in Charles County. But that didn’t stop them.
Suspended 50 feet above the ground and gripping slightly wobbly wire cables on either side of the bridge, 12-year-old Nick Fleisher walked gingerly between six trees in a patch of dense woods. Counselors stood perched high under the lush, leafy canopy in each tree, just in case.
And then it was time for the real fun: a four-second express ride on a zip line to terra firma.
“The ropes are awesome!” Nick shouted.
Nearby, twins with autism waited to try the same course.
Activities at the camp in rural Nanjemoy, southwest of Waldorf, are for all kids — those with and without physical, developmental or emotional issues. At Camp Accomplish, that’s a big part of the experience.
“Not a lot of camps allow people without disabilities to be with people who have disabilities,” said Nick, a day camper. “It’s cool here.”
Counselor Ben Head watched as campers conquered the high ropes course. Head, 22, of northern England, said he came to Camp Accomplish, along with about 10 other foreign counselors, because similar camps do not exist in their home countries.
“If the participant isn’t able to pull themselves up [the high ropes course], we can pull them up, and then you have Indiana Jones-style bridges to cross,” he said.
Head, who is in his second summer at the camp, said heart, not disability, is the only thing keeping campers from the rope bridge. “I am a certified ropes trainer, but every time I go up there, I say this isn’t particularly pleasant,” he said.
After the ropes, the group moved to an outdoor stage, where each camper could perform in a talent show. As boys and girls sat on logs, Kyle Heindel, a 9-year-old with Down syndrome, serenaded the ladies with “California Girls.” The girls, some of whom had limited communication skills, responded with applause and broad smiles.
Janice Frey-Angel, president and CEO of Melwood, a nonprofit whose goal is to empower people with disabilities, said that when children who are differently abled are placed with those who are not, it makes a huge difference.
“I think it makes them believe in themselves,” she said. “As adults, they will be able to contribute to the world, and all of the people who think that people who are different are ‘less than,’ well, [that’s] not true.”
Doria Fleisher, assistant director of the Melwood Recreation Center in Nanjemoy, agreed. “We have the best of both worlds,” said Fleisher, who is not related to Nick Fleisher. “We have kids with and without special needs, and they have the chance to really learn something.”
Camryn Evans, 11, of Leonardtown, first attended the camp because her mother, Stephanie Evans, works there. With a couple of years’ experience under her belt, Camryn, 11, is already planning to become a lifeguard and “work with kids who have disabilities.”
Asia Walthour, who has autism, attended Camp Accomplish last summer but could not this year because of complications from a traumatic brain injury.
So the camp went to her — in the form of a brown horse named Frosty.
On her 14th birthday last week, camp staffers led the horse into a trailer and drove nearly 30 minutes to Asia’s home in Waldorf.
“Her eyes got real big” when the horse was led into the back yard, said her mother, Robyn Walthour. And then Asia, in her wheelchair, and Frosty, in its harness, were led along the street.
“It means a lot for them to bring the horse to Asia,” Robyn Walthour said. “When children with special needs are included with the other children, it makes them feel special.”
Robin Parker, an administrator at George Mason University, said she wanted a camp that was not “segregated” for her 14-year-old twins, Zachary and Jacob. Though they don’t talk much because of their autism, it’s clear to her that they, too, are getting what they want.
“My boys have been there for several years, and it has been a huge blessing,” she said.
On summer mornings, “they are excited and ready to go before it’s time to go,” Parker said. “Then on Friday evening when they come home, they will say, ‘No camp,’ and I will say, ‘No camp.’ ”
“But then I will say, ’Camp Monday,’ ” Parker said. “And they will say, ‘Camp Monday.’ ”