Campers from around the Capital District have been able to attend the Easter Seals Camp Colonie for the last 20 years.
For more than 20 years, the Easter Seals Camp Colonie has been giving campers a little piece of magic in the Capital District.
At least according to Richard Lauricella, chair of the Easter Seals New York state board. “It’s kinds of like a Disney World for these kids. There are no rides, but there’s magic going on to help these children be able to develop,” he said.
Operating out of the Colonie Town Park on Schermerhorn Road, Camp Colonie is Easter Seals’ Capital District chapter. The Easter Seals organization provides support for people living with a range of disabilities. Camp Colonie, a six-week long day camp program for ages 5 to 21, serves people with developmental, physical and emotional disabilities.
With two programs, a full day camp and Schools Without Walls, the camp offers both the full summer camp experience with some academic support along the way. About 70-75 campers from around the Capital District attend Camp Colonie per week.
Lauricella said the camp turns no child away with scholarships available for the $400 fee. Children with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) can also get it fulfilled through the camp.
“It’s an integrated summer school and education camp all in one,” said Mitch Hahn, one of Camp Colonie’s two directors of 14 years. As well as regular camp counselors, there are social workers, physical and speech therapists and special education teachers.
“You would not know that there was academic teaching going on,” Hahn said. “The teachers and therapists are in camp doing that (academic support) throughout the day, and it is kind of seamless.”
In between the regular camp activities, like arts and crafts, swimming and nature walks, campers are taught science, reading and math. Lauricella said the campers are looked at individually, especially those with IEPs. People who need more academic support get one-on-one lessons.
But overall, campers on the same educational performance level are taught together. More formal academics happen about half an hour each day, with most of the learning filtered through recreational programs, said Hahn.
The camp hosts larger activities, too, like pony rides, a talent or magic show, and ice cream parties from Stewart’s.
Some campers, Lauricella said, stay with the camp from 5 years old all the way to 21, then become a camp counselor afterward.
Lauricella said he has had some campers approach him saying Camp Colonie is the place where they can feel like everyone else. At school, he said, students are sometimes bullied due to disabilities, but at the camp, all the children are treated the same. He said parents have told him their children have made more progress after the six-week camp than at school.
“It’s not a knock on the school,” said Lauricella, “but different kinds of teaching can’t necessarily be done at school.”
The camp also provides a place for parents to bring their children and be sure they’re safe and getting a good education, he said. They can also connect with other parents whose children have similar disabilities.
Camp Colonie has been held in Colonie’s town park for decades. The Capital District Easter Seals chapter is more than 90 years old, said Lauricella, although it disbanded for a time. A friend of Lauricella told him Easter Seals wanted to reestablish the Capital District chapter when he got involved in the organization about six years ago.
“We have a great partnership with Easter Seals,” said Town of Colonie Supervisor Paula Mahan. “It’s wonderful for the kids to be able to come in the integrated setting and enjoy the park and the campgrounds.”
As well as using one of the park’s pavilions, the campers make use of adaptive playground equipment up in the park. Right now it’s only a swing set, which can be used by children with and without disabilities, but Mahan said more equipment is planned for the future.
“We chose to put in the adaptive swing set for a number of reasons. We certainly wanted to make it easier for our students with disabilities that go to Camp Colonie, and the other part of it, too, is that we have all kinds of people who come to visit the park,” Mahan said.
The adaptive playground came shortly after a lift was put in the town pool. Mahan said the town wants the children to be able to play together and have a fun time in a safe environment.
“The kids absolutely love it,” said Hahn of Camp Colonie. “They are happy to be outside, happy not to be in a classroom. They are happy because our unbelievable staff of 43 people are giving them loads of attention and meeting all their needs…. So the kids love it. There’s a lot of smiling going on.”