- Associated Press - Sunday, August 6, 2017

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - At first, it looks like any other summer camp: There are cabins, a lodge and a pool, even a low ropes challenge course.

But look closer, and the camp on Kelly Road is anything but ordinary.

Concrete sidewalks connect all of the buildings. The pool has shower chairs nearby. In the garden, plants are in raised tubs instead of the ground.

That’s because Camp Millhouse is a fully-accessible summer camp for people with disabilities.

“We accommodate all disabilities and all ages,” said Diana Breden, executive director. “We have campers as young as 6 or 7, and our oldest camper this summer is 74.”

A long history

Founded in 1937 for kids with polio, Camp Millhouse was originally called Sunshine Camp. In 1940, Charles Millhouse and his wife donated the first 11 acres of land where the camp currently sits.

Camp Millhouse is the only camp for people with disabilities in the state where campers can attend through adulthood, Breden said.

Breden’s sisters, Julie Stalker and Lea Pitcher, volunteered in the 1970s. Breden fundraised for the camp in the 1980s. Pitcher was executive director for 26 years, and Breden took over in 2014 after she died. Stalker died in April.

“It’s been a part of my life since I was 5 years old,” Breden said. “It’s a family thing.”

This summer, Camp Millhouse was home to 294 campers over six weeks.

Each week has a theme and activities to match, like CSI week when campers get clues to solve a mystery. Cabins rotate through each “mod,” like arts and crafts, music and the pool. All campers do the evening activity together.

Committed campers

Campers come from Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and even Texas. Many campers come for years, like Lorrie Rozek, who has been attending for 46 years.

“Our mom remembers Lorrie running down the hill and yelling, ‘Mommy, I’m happy, I’m happy!’” said Pat Migas, Rozek’s sister. “Camp is the only place that I know that everybody can be who they are. They take the time not only to help her but everybody.”

Rozek couldn’t attend last year because of medical issues, so the staff made a video for her. Migas said it got her sister through a difficult time. She returned this year for two weeks.

Jeanie Rowe hasn’t attended for nearly as many years, but she still has experience under her belt. The 15-year-old is in her fourth year at Camp Millhouse.

“It’s a lot of fun here,” Rowe said. “Come here. No matter if you’re scared, you can still do day camp. I was scared my first year but I was all right.”

She loves swimming and crafts, but the very best part of camp for Rowe isn’t the activities. It’s the ability to “be independent and by myself,” she said.

Essential volunteers

Susie Kil is a second-year counselor in training. She’s not in charge of a cabin, like other counselors, but is assigned one to work with.

“You really create a bond with most of the campers, and once you create a bond it’s easier to come back,” Kil, 17, said.

Her sisters have Down syndrome and came to camp with her this year.

“They usually don’t get opportunities like this,” she said. “They’ve never been to a camp that’s specialized for their needs, and they’ve never gotten the attention at another camp. They’re going to want to come back. And they have those memories forever, which is great.”

Breden and Liz Richards, camp director, are the only full-time staff members. Volunteers are needed year-round. Most summer positions require volunteers to be 18 years old, but some can be 16.

Camp Millhouse operates on the fees it charges campers and the donations it receives.

It costs $1,200 to host a camper, but families pay $500. Fundraisers include an annual dinner and auction, a golf outing and a pancake breakfast.

“It’s just important to get people out here,” Breden said. “Unfortunately, we’ve been here 77 years and there are people in South Bend who don’t know who we are.”

Next steps

Breden said she would love to expand on the 45-acre property.

“My ultimate dream for camp would be a fully-accessible treehouse that we put out here in the woods,” Breden said. “I’ve seen them done and I think our campers would have a ball.”

Breden said what makes Camp Millhouse special isn’t the land or the donations from the community. It’s the campers.

“They are like family,” Breden said. “They are some of the most incredible human beings you will ever meet in your life. . It’s a magical place to be. ‘Camp Magic’ is kind of our little tag line but it’s true.”


Source: South Bend Tribune


Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com

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