“I feel very blessed to be a part of Camp Sensation and to have been a part of so many kids’ lives, even if it’s just for those four days a year. Just to see them smile and make them laugh and watch them interact with other kids with disabilities, it’s amazing. I feel very blessed that people took a chance on these wacky therapists that wanted to do something different and that Guthrie is continuing to allow us to put the camp on.” – Tonya Garges, PTA, Physical Therapy Assistant at Guthrie Towanda Memorial Hospital Pediatric Therapy Clinic and Camp Sensation Coordinator
Summer camp is an essential childhood experience that should be possible for everyone – including kids with special needs. That is the idea behind Camp Sensation, an annual day camp run by Guthrie Towanda Memorial Hospital’s Pediatric Therapy Clinic team.
For four days each summer, dozens of kids with a range of conditions, including ADHD, autism, Down syndrome, blindness, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida, come to Towanda Area Elementary School for Camp Sensation. Though the camp is not a therapy program, it provides kids with a supportive environment in which to build skills, increase confidence and independence – and have a lot of fun.
Camp Sensation began about 15 years ago after an occupational therapist at what was then Memorial Hospital identified a need that was not being met.
“We were looking around the community to see what programs were available for kids with special needs and their families, and there really wasn’t much,” says Tonya Garges, PTA, who has worked at the hospital as a Physical Therapy Assistant for 17 years and serves as a Coordinator for Camp Sensation.
The camp is open not only to kids with special needs, but to their siblings as well. This is really important, Garges says, because it gives the kids without special needs, who do not always get the same amount of attention as their siblings, a chance to be in on the fun and to meet other kids who have siblings with special needs. Plus, it gives parents a chance to recharge their batteries.
“It’s also a way of helping the kids and the hospital’s team get to know each other a little bit better,” Garges says. “When we see them for pediatric therapy, it can be all about work. This way we get to see them in a more relaxed setting.”
The camp’s name evokes the sensory work therapists do with kids who have certain conditions, like autism, to help them navigate a world that is not always friendly to people with special needs.
“We try to modify activities so all of the kids can participate to the fullest and get the most out of each activity,” Garges says, “which gives them the chance to do activities they wouldn’t get to do any other time.”
The organizers change up those activities from year to year to keep things interesting, but usually you will find kids making crafts, exercising, learning to dance, interacting with animals through a petting zoo or zoomobile, attending magic shows, and taking part in theatrical presentations, among other activities.
“We try to expose the kids to a lot of different things so they can say ‘I can do that. I may not be able to walk, but I can do this, and I can do this.’” Garges says. “Hopefully that’s what they come away with.”
These activities also serve as opportunities for the kids, who are put on teams, to learn about socializing and working together, and to build other skills.
“It’s a way for the kids to have fun while still incorporating those physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy ctivities” such as writing, speaking, and working with their hands, Garges says.
Generally, between 60 and 100 kids attend Camp Sensation each summer. Many kids come back year after year.
Heidi Teeter’s 7-year-old son Damien is one of those return campers. He’s attended Camp Sensation the last three years.
“The preparation that must go into the camp truly shows,” says Heidi. “There are so many activities and experiences for the children. It’s absolutely amazing!”
There may even be some kids who have come all 15 years, Garges says. “Both the kids and the parents look forward to it all year. Parents say, ‘We can’t get them out of bed – except when it’s time for Camp Sensation!’”
Volunteers, from high school students completing senior projects, to teachers, retired seniors, and entire families, are also an essential part of Camp Sensation.
“We are so appreciative of our volunteers. We could not run camp successfully without them,” Garges says.
This year’s camp will take place August 5–8. Campers ages 4 and 5 attend from 9 a.m. to noon and campers ages 6 and up attend from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Applications are mailed out to local schools and are also available at the hospital. This year’s registration deadline is July 17. Those interested in volunteering should email Jill Blemle, OT, at email@example.com no later than July 1.
How You Can Help
Guthrie is able to offer Camp Sensation to families for just $10 per child because of generous donors like you. Contact Guthrie’s Resource Development Department at 570-887-4420 or firstname.lastname@example.org to learn how you can sponsor a camper.
“It may seem like ‘it’s just a day camp, what’s the big deal?’” Garges says. “But it has such an impact on these kids’ lives.”