Jessica Hart is quick to answer when asked what she likes to do most at Camp Summit. “To ride horses and go swimming,” says the 28 year-old, who has cerebral palsy and vision impairment.
Hart has been coming to the Argyle camp for people with disabilities and developmental delays every year since she was 9. She said she feels the camp helps her and that she’d like to come back year after year.
While many sports leagues and therapeutic programs for people with disabilities have sprung up over the past decade or so, Camp Summit on 117 acres off of Copper Canyon Rd. just east of Lantana is one of the oldest camps of its kind, with programs now serving nearly 2,000 children and adults per year.
Summit, which aims to make traditional camping activities accessible to the disabled and features a 2-1 camper-to-counselor ratio, is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year. Unusually forward-looking for its time, it was established in 1947, 21 years before the first international Special Olympics games and 43 years before President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Liz Applegate, marketing manager for Camp Summit, said the camp strives to remain as innovative today as when it was created.
“We like to say that we adapt to any situation, whether that’s campers’ abilities or changing times,” she said. “As far as refining, I don’t think your job is ever done.”
These days, campers’ nighttime stargazing activities are enhanced by an app called The Night Sky, for example. Each cabin at Camp Summit has an iPad, and the app helps campers find constellations and planets.
A place with no barriers
While running Camp Summit is a challenge, the real challenges are those faced in daily life by its campers, said Camp Director Lisa Braziel.
“The challenge is for our campers every day, in everyday living, with the barriers, both the physical and the social barriers that they run into outside of camp,” she said. “Once they come to Camp Summit, those barriers mostly are gone.”
Campers participate in activities such as arts and crafts, nature studies, sports and games, talent shows and dances, all adapted to their needs. Ramps lead into every building. “We have wheelchair swings. Our rope course is fully adapted,” Braziel said.
The benefits for campers go far beyond physical activity, she added.
“They’re also gaining social skills,” she said. “Independence — being away from their parents or their regular caregivers; we have our counselors but we encourage our campers to be as independent as they can be. That comes not only from the activities we provide, but also through the living situation they’re in. Self-esteem — that’s another thing we see here at camp, is their self-esteem grow.”
Camp Summit accepts campers from age 6, and there is no upper limit. Some campers have been coming for more than 50 years.
Ahead of its time
The camp was originally called Camp Soroptimist and got its name from its founding organization, the Soroptimist International Club of Dallas, a branch of the group which works around the world to help women and girls. In keeping with the Soroptimist’s ideals, it was an all-girls camp — for one week.
“They wanted to do a service project and decided to do a one-week camp, and then just developed it from there,” Braziel said.
“They were pioneers,” she said of the camp’s founders. “People with disabilities back in 1947, they were always kind of kept hidden. Even when I was in high school in the ’80s, I don’t remember a lot of students with disabilities. They were always down ‘that hall,’ or maybe not even in our school building. Nowadays, individuals with disabilities are so much more included.”
Applegate’s school experience was similar — “They put students with disabilities in portable buildings,” she said.
Camp Summit doesn’t only change the lives of its campers, but of its staff members too.
“We have staff who have been here many years,” Braziel said. “I have had many who were in college and changed their majors after working with us, because of their experience here at camp. We talk about it all the time — the rewards we get are just phenomenal,” Braziel said.
Witnessing the personal development of her campers and staff makes her feel quite fortunate, she said.
“I started 23 years ago as a camp counselor here and fell in love. I tell people all the time, I’m the luckiest person in the world, I have the greatest job in the world.”
Learn more about Camp Summit at www.campsummittx.org.