Camp Does More Than Help Children With Physical Disabilities

Posted Jul 15, 2010
By Roy Lewis

EMC News - For the first time visitor, Camp Merrywood looks like a typical children's summer vacation camp.

There are indoor and outdoor recreational and sports facilities, a swimming pool, community dining hall and the accommodation buildings with wilderness sounding names such as loon, blue heron, moose, bear, maple and pine. But a tour of its facilities reveals subtle differences, such as lower washroom counter tops for wheelchair accessibility, that make the summer retreat a welcoming place for the special children who spend time and have fun there. Located on a narrow peninsula that juts out into Rideau Lake between Perth and Smiths Falls, Merrywood gives the experience of being at camp to youngsters with physical disabilities.

Members of Brockville's two Rotary clubs - the Brockville Rotary Club and the 1000 Islands Rotary Club - toured the facility recently just a few days prior to the arrival of the first group of young campers for this season. Providing funding for Camp Merrywood has been a major pursuit for local Rotarians for decades.

While attempting to give campers as much freedom as possible, Merrywood officials are also aware their young charges have varying degrees of mobility and communication difficulties. It is for that reason, fencing, gates and strategically planted shrubs block access to the shoreline and docking areas, there is a fence around the camp's in-ground pool and ramps, lower counter heights and light switches are designed to assist those confined to wheelchairs.

The camp has the capacity to take 72 youngsters at any one time with the length of their stay being 10 days. Youngsters are housed in three buildings each of which is divided into two sections referred to as cabins. Three or four of the camp's counselors are assigned to each of the buildings at night.

"The counselors take turns sleeping on an air mattress in the hallway to respond to the concerns of campers," said Suzanne Heale, assistant director and head counsellor at Camp Merrywood.

The youngsters may face problems ranging from agitation to restlessness or a common children's camp malady - homesickness.

Heale also explained another part of Merrywood's security system designed to keep campers safe. An alarm is activated if an exterior door at any of the residential buildings is opened during the night. The alarm alerts all staff in the complex that one or more campers have left a building. Flashing lightsoutside of the buildings also alert councillors to a potential problem.


And although surrounded by these necessary security measures, campers are interested in the many activities they can enjoy during their time at camp. At the centre of each residential building is a covered outdoor activity area.

Screens keep the bugs away but do not block the views of a sweeping vista of the lake. Here, youngsters spend 90 minutes a day in "hang time" where they can relax or play games.

Specially-designed, small sailboats allow campers an opportunity to experience the joy of sailing. The arts and craft building is popular with campers who engage in pottery, candle making, painting, bracelet making and assembling small structures from pre-cut pieces of wood. In the media program, youngsters learn how to keep a scrapbook, have lessons on how to use a camera and use the photos they take to make a postcard with a message to send home to mom and dad. Campers, who must be between the ages of six and 18, also enjoy kayaking, canoeing and fishing.

A section of the main administration building has been modified into an accessible kitchen area where youngsters can learn life skills including food preparation.

Children attending Merrywood often have related health programs. It is for that reason the camp has its own medical facility, referred to as the Health Hut, which contains an assessment office, a two-bed treatment room, a medication room where prescriptions are kept under lock and key until they are dispensed. There is also a specialized, lift facility for lowering youngsters into a bath tub.

Three nurses and two nursing students are part of the staff at each camp session. They are equipped to administer basic first aid procedures, including giving oxygen or suction. If required, a youngster can be transported by ambulance to a hospital in either nearby Perth or Smiths Falls.

"Although we have not had to do so, we could arrange to airlift a youngster to Ottawa if necessary," said Paul St. Louis, a registered nurse at the camp.

Another program provides a camping opportunity for disabled children and their parents. While there, families of up to four members can enjoy the experience of spending time at a summer camp but, in the case of Merrywood, there are facilities to assist youngsters with disabilities.


Merrywood is also more than just a camp for disabled children. While a child is at camp, his or her parents or other caregivers are provided with an often much-needed respite from the onerous task of looking after a disabled youngster while knowing their child is receiving proper care and supervision. However, children sometimes have a different view about the camp and have expressed the sentiment to counselors that staying at Merrywood gives them a break from their parents.

Both Merrywood, and a similar fully accessible facility, Camp Woodeden near London, Ontario, are operated by Easter Seals Ontario.

Inspired by the success of Easter Seals in the United States, 10 Rotary clubs formed the first network of Easter Seals organizations in Canada in 1922. Programs have changed but Easter Seals continues to offer programs, including financial assistance for mobility and communication devices and fully accessible summer camps, as well as other summer recreation programs to allow physically disabled children to achieve a greater level of acceptance and independence. But the non-profit organization must rely on donations from the community for both its operating, maintenance and expansion expenses.

The ratio of staff to campers attending Merrywood is high because of the difficulties faced by the youngsters. There are 62 staff members for each group of 72 campers. For that reason, the cost of sending a child to Merrywood averages $2,000 for a 10-day stay. During an average summer season, it costs a total of $1.5 million to operate the facility.

"We must rely on the community to financially support our programs," said Carol Lloyd, president and chief executive officer of Easter Seals Ontario.

Support comes from service clubs such as Rotary, corporate donations, community groups and private donors coupled with valuable assistance from volunteers, according to Lloyd. In 2006, Brockville Rotarians committed a gift of $25,000 over a five-year period for the camp's Challenging Boundaries campaign to either repair existing buildings or add new facilities.

While meeting its annual funding requirements necessary to deliver its core programs, the board of directors of Easter Seals Ontario made it a priority for the organization to be deficit free and has emerged from the recent recession in a solid financial position.

"The exercise has been effective as we have been able to increase our net revenue," said Lloyd.

But there has been limited opportunity to redirect already over-stretched operating funds generated from fundraising to major capital projects. However, Easter Seals is making improvements to its summer camps as funds allow. As part of its capital building program this year, Merrywood opened a change facility, complete with outdoor showers, adjacent to the swimming pool.


Other buildings at Merrywood, some as old as the camp itself, are showing signs of aging. Currently, Easter Seals is on a fundraising drive to make repairs to the Camp Merrywood Hall built in 1967.

The building forms a focal point of the camp and consists of a large auditorium complete with a wheelchair accessible stage.

Youngsters from throughout the camp gather here for talent night each Monday and the building's floor, although now at a slope which needs to be rectified through repairs, is a great place to play sledge hockey where competitors use sticks to propel themselves around on wheeled boards. The hall is also where campers hold their final night celebrations before leaving Merrywood.

While the building's roof is relatively sound, part of the floor is not and new bases are needed for the structure's steel support columns. Total cost of repairs has been set at $51,000.

Discussions and future planning are also underway to build a covered, multi-use sports pad at the camp. The focus of this space will be to provide a proper sledge hockey and wheelchair basketball surface.

Reproduced from

More all disability articles.