Camp Greentop

Camp Greentop, in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains, has long been a refuge for people with disabilities. (Handout photo / May 4, 2012)

For eight years, Renee Gordon's son, Alex, has been attending Camp Greentop, a summer getaway in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains for people with disabilities.

Now Gordon is now spearheading a campaign with Michael Hettleman to raise $1 million for the Baltimore-based League for People with Disabilities, which runs the camp. The money will be used to help families pay for the programs, which cost about $260 a day, and to provide training for counselors.

"The camp provides the most incredible experience," Gordon said. "It provides a sleepaway camp experience that a normally developing child has, and it is modified for these disabled individuals."

The campaign coincides with the 75th anniversary of Camp Greentop, which was founded in 1937 primarily for polio victims. The camp, which lies about a half-mile from Camp David, is owned by the National Park Service.

"We want to be sure people have the ability to come to our camp," said Bill Morgan, vice president of camping and therapeutic recreation for the League for People with Disabilities.

The League for People with Disabilities rents the property and runs the summer camp, as well as nearby winter programs. Most of the campers, like Alex Gordon, have autism, and there is no age limit, according to Morgan. Some campers have attended for 40 years, he said.

The camp, accredited by the American Camp Association, has 12 cabins, which typically hold six campers and four staff members each, Morgan said. The handicapped-accessible cabins are original to the site and built of American chestnut. The staff is trained in such matters as communicating and interacting with campers of varying abilities, first aid, and the identification of signs of abuse.

Campers' activities include swimming, horseback riding and crafts — much like other camp, said Morgan. There are also campfires with s'mores, talent shows and banquet nights.

Gordon, who lives in Pikesville, said Camp Greentop gives campers the opportunity to socialize with peers and provides a break for caregivers.

"I don't think parents of normally developing children realize how important it is," she said.

Alex Gordon, 19, uses assistive technology to communicate and needs round-the-clock care, his mother said.

"It's not the typical childhood," she said. But Camp Greentop gives him a typical camp experience.

"For us as parents, it's really heartwarming when we drop Alex off and there are campers there saying 'Hi Alex, Hi Alex,'" she said. "These are his friends and they are genuinely happy to be there."

Morgan said Gordon and her husband, Barry, are doing more than raising money for the camp. They are also advocates for people with autism, and talk about their experiences as part of the staff training.

"These kinds of things are incredibly empowering to staff, to remind them of the importance of what they are doing," Barry said.

The couple will be honored for their work on behalf of people with autism at a league dinner May 21.

Jacob Ford, 14, will attend Camp Greentop for a third summer this year, and has also participated in winter programs, said his mother, Betty Barron.

Jacob, who lives with his mother in Columbia, has Prader-Willi syndrome, complicated by mosaic trisomy 15, a congenital condition that manifests itself through a host of symptoms, including autism, severe cognitive and speech delays, low muscle tone and seizures.

"They understand the needs of this kind of client," Barron said of the Camp Greentop staff. "It was very easy to trust that Jacob was in good hands. It's just a good operation."

Barron said one of her goals in sending her son to the camp is to prepare him for a future when she's not around to take care of him. Camp Greentop, said Barron, is preparing her son "for a community-based living setting when he an adult. That's my whole goal. … I've got to prepare him for life without me."

Though Jacob's verbal abilities are limited, he seems to like the camp, said Barron. When she arrived in the Catoctin Mountains to pick him up after his first 10-day session in the summer of 2010, "he seemed taller, he seemed older, he had gained some independence skills," she said.

"I was floored at how dramatic, for him, the difference was."

To learn more or to give to the League for People with Disabilities, call 410-323-0500 or go to leagueforpeople.org.