Camp Koinonia*

What do you get when you give 200-plus college kids a week off and the keys to a 190-acre, multimillion-dollar summer camp facility?

Your response might be something worthy of a sequel to Animal House, but let me share with you my experience as I witnessed just such an event firsthand this past week.

The event I am referring to is Camp Koinonia, a Spring camp for children with disabilities ranging in age from 7 to 21.

The trip to Koinonia was a planned daytrip for my wife, my son and myself and was made possible by two exhaustingly energetic ladies with whom I am fortunate enough to work at The Sertoma Center in Knoxville.  Sarah and Nicole have programmed our recreational therapy services for years, devoting themselves to expanding the lives of individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities to include a variety of experiences they might not otherwise get to enjoy.

One such experience is Camp Koinonia.

During a recent discussion with Sarah and Nicole about Camp Koinonia, I learned that they have collectively served in multiple camps each year for a combined 15-plus years.  Although my son, Jacob, would qualify to attend, he has not done so, and I explained to them the many reasons why not, all rather transparently rooted in a dark personal fear of having my vulnerable son so far away from home for a full week.

Convinced Jacob would love camp, Sarah and Nicole took matters into their own hands, made some calls, and organized a day visit for us during the 2015 Spring Camp.  After a beautiful drive up to the Cumberland Plateau, we arrived at the gate and were greeted by a security guard who welcomed us into the camp only after confirming our names on the list of approved visitors.  We met up with Sarah and Nicole, who quickly introduced us to the Camp Director, Mindy Brown, and all three were gracious enough to spend a few hours showing us around the camp.

As we walked around, Sarah, Nicole, and Mindy frequently singled out staff and shared their stories with us.  One young counselor devoted two months in advance to frequently visit and grow familiar with his especially challenging young charge.  The home visits to build rapport and master the youth’s significant dietary needs were done entirely voluntarily to provide the best experience possible for that one single young person.

They pointed out a young accountant who uses vacation time from his career in Nashville to continue as a counselor each year since initially volunteering while studying at UT Business School.  Later, leading his housemates in a raucous cheer, he stirred them into a frenzy of enthusiasm and excitement worthy of any Super Bowl celebration.  The uptight UT Business School grad in me struggled to refrain from pointing out that business school graduates do not incite cheer and excitement – especially in such a public way.  But the side of me that could relate to his passion won out.

Another former camper, now a returning camp volunteer, marched briskly by, greeting us as a shining example of the potential that can be unlocked in every single camper there today.

Looking at the camp as a true outsider, I had this surreal sense that I was a foot taller than everyone else there and could easily see all that was going on around me.  While viewing the various activities of horse riding, zip-lining, canoeing, woodcrafts, cooking, biking, and so on, I could not help but have my attention drawn away repeatedly by everything else that was going on around me.

Everywhere my eyes fell left me with an impression.

The sheer number of camp staff:  With 139 campers in attendance, the staff outnumbered them almost two to one, ensuring that every single individual had a full-time one-on-one counselor, in some cases two-on-one if needed.

I was impressed by the facilities:  An absolutely beautiful sprawling campus with uniform cabins for everyone, a large dining hall, basketball courts, a lovely lake and more, it was simply a first-rate facility with every possible consideration of the population served taken into account.

I was most deeply impressed with the devoted camp counselor staff.  Literally everywhere I looked, I saw campers being cared for, mentored, protected, pushed to excel beyond their traditional bounds and, most importantly, being loved.  I was witness to the best that East Tennessee has to offer this very vulnerable population.  I suspect the majority of campers will consider this brief time to be among the best of their lives.  My heart was filled with warmth at the beauty of it all.

As we continued our rounds, Mindy excused herself for a moment and stepped away to kiss a beautiful young lady with Down syndrome on the cheek.  She explained to me this was her sister, and I immediately assumed that her sister’s special needs had drawn her into the field of Therapeutic Recreation.  When she returned, I was surprised to hear that this was not the case.  At a young age and years before her sister’s birth, Mindy had volunteered at the Special Olympics, fallen in love with the children, and known immediately this was what she wanted to do the rest of her life.  Her special sister came later and only reaffirmed the commitment to her chosen field.

As I looked around from venue to venue, I watched 200 other, equally committed young people and felt at peace that I would be leaving Jacob in safe hands when he returns to stay the week next year.

© Michael L. Collins

*This column first appeared in April 22, 2015 edition of The Mountain Press

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