At Easter Seals Camp Merrywood, good things happen.
By Tammy Culhane
For hundreds of children with physical disabilities, a stay at Easter Seals Camp Merrywood makes summertime carefree and joyful. At this spot on Rideau Lake, campers get to experience the adventure of sleeping in a cabin, the novelty of gathering for nightly campfires, the thrill of giggling and whispering after lights-out and the pleasure of discovering new interests.
Besides, it’s a blast. “Kids like to go there because it’s fun,” explains former counsellor Gail Maracle. “It’s a chance to get away from home, but be in a safe environment. Sometimes at their schools, [these kids] can stick out; not so at camp.”
The impact can last a lifetime. While at Easter Seals Camp Merrywood, “I learned it was okay to be different,” says one former camper. “That acceptance really boosted my self confidence. I realized I could do whatever I put my mind to, in spite of my limitations.”
Limitations? How about possibilities and opportunities? They’re plentiful at this camp. Located on a peninsula between Smith Falls and Perth, the site was built back in 1948 to serve the needs of children with polio. Today, it accommodates youngsters with a wide variety of physical disabilities, including cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and spina bifida. On site, all sorts of summer activities are accessible, from canoeing and swimming to music and drama. Facilities include camper cabins, a dining room and lodge, a music and theatre building, a specially adapted pool, a health hut and a covered sports and activity pad.
There are lots of different camp choices too. Individual Camp, for kids aged seven to 18, is a 10-day program with loads of flexibility. Participants can try everything or stick to what they love best. GEAR-UP Camp is a seven-day or 10-day program for youths aged 18 to 25. GEAR-UP stands for Goals, Empowerment, Attitude, Respect, Understanding and Proud. Campers get the chance to make new friends and develop new skills. Leaders in Training Camp focuses on promoting campers’ personal growth and developing their leadership skills. The 10-day experience is for teens aged 17 to 22. And this year, Easter Seals Camp Merrywood is introducing a new offering called Sports Camp. Open to campers aged 13 to 18, it will allow them to experience fully adapted recreational, sport and leisure activities.
For parents and youngsters who are unsure about the whole camping experience, there are two programs that allow them to try out camp life. One is a five-day session called Family Camp that’s geared to campers aged one to 18 and their families. This camp allows families to have a vacation in a fully accessible environment. Participants get to meet other families while joining in camp activities. Another session, Discovery Camp, is a five-day trial open to children aged six to 12. In this session, campers gain a bit of independence, while still having structure.
All potential campers must be registered with Easter Seals Ontario to qualify to attend. There’s certainly no shortage of interest—and no wonder. “Merrywood gives campers the opportunity to make new friends, try new things in a safe and caring environment, gain independence and life skills, and learn how to direct their own care,” notes Camp Director Barb Gray.
Options are always plentiful at this 30-acre summer oasis. General camp activities include arts and crafts, fishing, beach day, life skills and media arts. Other offerings, such as archery, kayaking and volleyball, are also available. All are fully accessible. Some activities are perennial favourites, the camp director says. “There certainly are a number of traditions that are very popular,” Barb mentions, listing the nightly campfires, the talent show, the banquet and the final dance. In fact, the end-of-camp banquet and dance create a huge buzz. After all, everyone gets to dress up and celebrate with new friends. And everyone is encouraged to dance—on feet or wheels or whatever.
A team of 64 staff members, including three registered nurses and two health-care assistants, ensures campers get the attention they require and have the opportunity to thrive. Staff members are certified in CPR or First Aid and the many camp counsellors on site facilitate activities and assist campers with daily care. As a young adult, Gail applied for a job as a counsellor because she wanted to work with children with disabilities. Since her niece would be attending Easter Seals Camp Merrywood, Gail also wanted to make certain she would be okay. The former camp counsellor says there were many life lessons back then at Rideau Lake: “Disabled kids are just like all other kids; some are good, some are bad, some are mischievous and some are real angels.”
For a summer that any child will never forget, Easter Seals Camp Merrywood is definitely the place to be. Asked what makes the camp so special, Barb says, “The camp comes to life when the campers are there. All day and well into the evening you hear the laughter of the campers enjoying themselves.” As much as the camp comes to life, for many campers it also starts a life of more freedom and independence.