Great adventures: Camp helps kids, adults with disabilities

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

LAWRENCEVILLE -- A small group of campers will travel south from Gwinnett to the Okefenokee Swamp this weekend looking for adventure.

Led by volunteers with the small, nonprofit organization Camp Caglewood, the campers -- children and adults with developmental disabilities -- will experience the great outdoors while learning to be more independent and having some fun away from home.

Camp Caglewood is an all volunteer-run camping program for individuals with special needs that was founded in 2001 by Brookwood grad Paul Freeman and his wife, Jessica.

For Dwight Dinkins, 26, and his family, Dwight's trips with Camp Caglewood and the Freemans have been a blessing. Dwight was born with agenesis of the corpus callosum, a rare birth defect in which the band of tissue connecting the two hemispheres of the brain fails to develop normally. His mother, Emily Dinkins, said Dwight exhibits many autistic traits. He has been traveling with Camp Caglewood for several years.

"The weekend trips are perfect," Emily Dinkins said. "I think one of the most important things it does for Dwight is that he learns how to share a living space with his peers. Eventually he will probably, when we're gone, live in a group home and he is so accustomed to just having us because he doesn't have any brothers and sisters and that's going to be hard for him. This lets him separate from us and spend time with others."

The weekend getaways also give Emily and her husband, Patrick, much needed respite from the 24/7 job of caring for their son.

"This is literally the only break we get," Emily said.

While the Dinkins were able to afford to pay for Dwight's trips when he first started camping with Camp Caglewood, the recession has hit the family hard. Emily was laid off from her job and Patrick, who owns a construction company, has seen business dry up.

Thanks to scholarships offered by Camp Caglewood that allow campers whose families can't pay for trips to participate, Dwight will be traveling to the Okefenokee Swamp this weekend.

"Dwight would not be able to go if it were not for the scholarship funding," Emily said. "We're very, very grateful for that and the people that have been giving."

The Dinkins aren't the only Camp Caglewood family experiencing financial struggles in light of the recession. The organization has seen, and continues to see, a dramatic increase in requests from campers for financial assistance.

"The biggest issue that we have now is the growing amount of campers now who can't afford to pay," Paul Freeman said. "All of the new campers that we are getting these days are experiencing some financial hardship and our number one goal is for more kids to be able to go to camp."

To continue to serve as many campers as possible while allowing new campers to participate in the program, Camp Caglewood hopes to build an endowment with the help of 850 giving individuals who will pledge $25 a month for a year.

Freeman said the $250,000 endowment would fund scholarships, both full and partial, for 40 to 50 campers.

"There aren't very many organizations that offer the types of activities we do," Freeman said. "We're not a summer camp, we're not just a respite care facility. We actually go on adventures."

The camping excursions are recreationally based but include an underlying independent skills training program.

"They learn to be more independent, they learn to adapt to new environments, new living situations, new sleeping arrangements," Freeman said. "They gain a great deal of self-esteem, they are able to be more exposed to social environments with campers with like disabilities and different disabilities, and they also get a vacation from mom and dad or their everyday care giver."

Camp Caglewood draws campers from all over Georgia and as far as Alabama, Tennessee and West Virginia. Trips are taken usually once a month and donations to Camp Caglewood go toward purchasing food and other supplies, equipment, campsite rentals and transportation. Each camper receives a T-shirt and water bottle for their trips, which include hiking, cooking meals over an open fire, white-water rafting and more.

"When you are stuck in your everyday activities and you're able to leave that, escape from that, and go and hike the Appalachian Trail or go white-water rafting, it can almost be like the story is all about you," Freeman said.

To pledge support for Camp Caglewood or to make a donation, visit www.caglewood.org