Happy Campers
Celebrate The Children lets children with special needs experience outdoor adventure
Patti Sells | News-Telegram Feature Editor

Oct. 8, 2006 - Every child should have the opportunity to experience the thrill and excitement of camp and the many fun things that go along with the great, outdoor adventure. 

Those with special needs are no exception, which is why Celebrate The Children was created specifically to serve handicapped children of Northeast Texas.

Celebrate The Children is a 100-acre working ranch outside of Commerce that allows special needs children the opportunity to experience fishing, farm animals, hayrides, arts and crafts, campfire cookouts and horseback riding.

�When we moved to this area, I realized there was a lack of outdoor recreational programs for special needs children in this region,� said founder Kris Wright, who moved to Commerce in 2000. �There were no relief organizations, no disability support groups, nothing.�

Wright, whose background involved more than 10 years of dedication to Youth At Risk in Dallas, adopted the philosophy “Involvement and Concern Causes Change.” She decided to put her expertise to work in organizing a nonprofit program that would benefit those with learning disabilities, Downs syndrome, autism, blindness, deafness, spinal bifida, mental retardation and cerebral palsy,”

�The personal side of this is that I have a cousin whose daughter has cerebral palsy,� explained Wright, �For years I watched her struggle to raise her child and give her the experiences of a normal life.�

The highlight of her year, according to Wright, came each summer through Whispers of Hope in Wichita Falls, a program that provided children with disabilities an opportunity to ride a horse.

�I wanted to take Celebrate The Children a few steps further,� she said.

�Our mission is to work with physically and mentally challenged children through day, weekend and summer outdoor camps,� explained Wright. �Through the camps, they experience a sense of adventure, and a new appreciation of nature and its inhabitants.�

According to Wright, friendships are formed and self-esteem and personal independence are enhanced, as well as social skills like cooperation and the development of communication within a group setting.

Volunteers work one-on-one with campers. And with a 1-to-1 ratio of campers to volunteers, the program works hard at emphasizing a child’s abilities rather than disabilities.

�We provide a specific volunteer camp buddy for each child the entire day,� Wright explained.

Volunteers come from both local and surrounding communities, according to Wright. They range from college students whose field of study may one day involve working with those who have disabilities, sorority and fraternity members giving back to the community, as well as interns, special education teachers and others who simply want to help.

�I recall several years ago my hesitation at leaving my twin boys with cerebral palsy in the care of strangers for a day,� said Jennifer Roberts of Sulphur Springs. �One is in a wheelchair, the other tube fed. I hung around to assure myself of their safety.�

Wright remembers that day, too.

�I remember her pulling way out in the pasture and just watching,� recalled Wright. �It�s hard for any parent to leave their child at a camp � how much more so for those of children with special needs? I would have done the same thing. Trust is a big thing. And safety is our #1 priority.�

According to Roberts, she looks back now with a bit of regret that she did not use some of that time for herself.

�I observed positive, loving people taking such good care of my boys,� she remembered.

Now, according to Roberts, she’s able to confidently drop her twins off at the camp and take advantage of a much-needed respite.

�The day camp gives my boys the opportunity to do activities they might not otherwise ever get to do,� said Roberts, who explained the simple act of fishing is a big undertaking when it involves a child with special needs. �This program and its volunteers are making a difference in our world.�

Changing the future, one child at a time, is the motto of Celebrate The Children.

An application fee of  $16 insures a child’s reservation at the camp. Scholarships are available for those who need help to cover the cost of a camper. Camps take place four times a year: Spring, early summer, fall and Christmas. The next day camp will be Saturday, Oct. 28, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

�We need to spread the word about this program in our community � it's great,� Roberts emphasized. �Number one, because it offers respite to families, and there is not a whole lot of that in our rural area. Number two, it allows our children to do what their peers are able to do. We just don�t have many of these opportunities for our kids. They really enjoy it and are very willing participants. Each year I am seeing progressively more and more age groups represented, and an array of disabilities.�

For more information on how to obtain an application for a special needs child, or for those who would like to volunteer or donate funds, call 903-886-8365 or log on to www.texaschild.org.

�This outdoor recreational day camp provides campers many benefits,� Wright said. �It allows them the opportunity to learn new things, discover gifts they have, as well as develop social and recreational skills. All of this enhances personal independence while giving them a greater appreciation of nature and their surroundings.�

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