TORONTO — It’s almost lunchtime and Adventure Valley day camp is a flurry of excitement.
Owen, one of a handful of special needs campers at Adventure Valley day camp, poses with his counsellors, from left, Sallyanne Hadzalic, Evan Lighter, Josh Garbe and Kevin Feng. [Rita Poliakov photo]
Screaming kids run the length of the soccer field, trying to get in one more goal. Tennis balls bounce up and down in the courts, and Kool-Aid rockets are being launched high into the air.
In the middle of it all sits Owen, arguably one of the most popular campers in his group.
Kids circle him, showing off their homemade rockets, chattering about lunch and arguing about who will push his wheelchair.
Owen, 9, has cerebral palsy and is profoundly deaf, but none of that matters right now, because he is about to launch his rocket.
Two counsellors gently place an empty Kool-Aid Jammers container in his lap. Both his hands are brought together and the straw flies into the air, bringing a wide smile to Owen’s face. It’s obvious he wants to do it again, and again and again.
Owen is one of a few campers with disabilities at Adventure Valley camp, located at Leslie Street and Steeles Avenue. The camp, which is in its second summer, prides itself on inclusion. The camp’s staff is made up of various special needs specialists and one-on-one counsellors who help cater to each camper’s needs.
“Some camps have the illusion of inclusion,” said Tammy Zaldin, Adventure Valley’s co-inclusion liaison director. “Here, the whole camp is accommodating.”
This summer, Adventure Valley has teamed up with Chai Lifeline, an organization that supports Jewish children with serious illnesses and their families. Chai Lifeline has just started a “Kindness Fund” to send siblings of disabled children to camp.
“Parents dealing with [their child’s] illness don’t have money to spend on camp,” said Rabbi Mordechai Rothman, Chai Lifeline’s regional director in Canada.
Rabbi Rothman found Owen through one of the parents at Adventure Valley and decided to help him as well.
According to Rabbi Rothman, Chai Lifeline will send five children with disabilities and 12 siblings of kids with disabilities to Adventure Valley this summer.
While Owen benefits from this program, so do his fellow campers.
“Other children are not necessarily exposed to kids with disabilities,” Rabbi Rothman said. “It’s important to learn that kids with disabilities are the same as you and me, they’re just in a wheelchair.”
Lynda Fishman, executive director of Adventure Valley, agrees.
“Owen is so visibly special needs, I think it’s a wonderful life lesson for [campers],” she said.
Adventure Valley is a 20-acre camp with facilities such as a soccer field, nine tennis courts, a pool and hiking trails.
The camp is ideal for children like Owen, Fishman said.
“Most camps won’t take [children with special needs] or aren’t equipped. We have qualified teachers and expertise. It’s a small camp, we’re able to integrate children with serious special needs.”
While Owen can’t participate in every activity, many games are modified to include him.
Josh Garbe, one of Owen’s counsellors, has helped in the inclusion process.
“When things started two weeks ago, we didn’t know what to expect. We knew his condition, but we didn’t know what that meant… [but] we’ve realized that Owen is just like the rest of the kids. He wants to have fun just the same,” Garbe said.
“Although [Owen] can’t participate fully, he does all the arts and crafts and sports. He became one of the group.”
Owen’s fellow campers agree.
“Having Owen in our group doesn’t hold us back, he helps us understand. Just because someone’s different doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them,” Jack, 11, said.
Although Owen can only communicate using sign language and facial expressions, the campers and staff have learned how to understand him.
“Part of it is about finding a way to communicate his needs and desires and teaching his peers how to understand, teaching them that a smile is a whole conversation,” said Zaldin.
Luckily, Owen loves to smile.
“A lot of the time, he’s really funny. He smiles and laughs a lot. Yesterday, one counsellor was arguing with another over a cheer, and he started laughing,” said Ethan, 10, who is in Owen’s group.
Eleven-year-old Philip summed up the campers’ attitude toward Owen.
“He’s a friend,” Philip said.