When Jamal Cannady of Sharptown reflects on his time at summer camp, his voice warms with the onrush of happy memories and enthusiasm. Ziplining, swimming, boating — he does it all.
"Things I never did before in life I get to do at camp. I like to go out on a canoe ride, go in the pool, go camping, go on a nature walk, sing songs and we do a lot of things in the woods," he said.
Cannady, 32, has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. Since he was 2, he has spent part of his summer at Easter Seals' Camp Fairlee, a camp established to give children and adults with a spectrum of disabilities the opportunity to experience everything offered at a typical summer camp.
"I really appreciate it being designed for people in wheelchairs. The camp was designed for people with disabilities," Cannady said. "They make it so that people can have fun for one week. When Friday comes, I do not want to leave because I love it so much."
Ford C. Waggoner, director of marketing at Easter Seals, said the Chestertown camp opened in 1954 after a wealthy socialite's summer retreat was donated to the foundation, then known as the Delaware Society for Crippled Children.
"Camp Fairlee started as a place for children with polio," he said, adding, "the camp evolved for people with all disabilities of all ages. The goal was to design a camp that they can do everything that every child could do, to make the entire experience accessible."
Today, the camp has grown into a sprawling 250-acre facility that has served about 25,000 people. Waggoner said the camp plans to enhance its facilities and become a year-round operation, offering fall, winter and spring programs.
During the residential summer program, children and adults 6 and older can enjoy five-, six- or 12-day sessions filled with swimming, wall climbing, flying on a zipline and horseback riding, while staying overnight at the camp. The camp prides itself on a close counselor-to-camper ratio: one counselor for every two to three participants, and a one-to-one ratio for children with autism. Counselors come from all over the world.
"We have 55 to 65 people on staff," said Sallie Price, 49, camp director. "We have registered nurses, a physician on call 24/7, experienced administrative people, an increased food service program and a trained culinary specialist to meet the needs of the diet restrictions of our campers."
Price said although the camp focuses on the comfort of campers, it is also stresses the importance of helping them build new skills and finding a supportive community.
"We provide children and adults with the opportunity for an outdoor experience where they can gain independence, self-confidence, make friends and gain social communication skills for their communities and home," she said. "When they pull into our driveway, they look forward to the independence they have there. There are no boundaries or barriers."
The camp also gives exhausted caregivers a break. While campers are at Fairlee, their family members can take a respite weekend — a chance to do activities that aren't normally possible.
Tom Needles of Newark, Del., has looked to Camp Fairlee for his respite weekend for the past three years. His son, Mark Needles, recently turned 30 and has myriad disabilities. The elder Needles and his wife plan the respite on their wedding anniversary every year.
"We could never take him on an airplane, we could never take him to a hotel," Tom Needles said. "We do everything for him that he would do otherwise if he had the capacity. It gets tiring to have this added stress and to deal with some of those behaviors — he makes a lot of noise, he claps, he hollers, he gets into things. You get really tired when you care for someone with needs as great as my son's."
As for Cannady, he is already day dreaming about being back at Camp Fairlee, sun bathing on the water and talking to his friends. Even after 30 years, the experience will never grow old.
"I am going back for two weeks this summer. I really hope they bring the boats back because that used to be my favorite thing," he said. "I really like going to Camp Fairlee, man, and I hope it stays open for the next 10 or 11 years and continues to grow."
To enroll at Camp Fairlee, go to easterseals.com/de/our-programs/camping-recreation/.