Christian nonprofit provides camping experience for the disabled

07/15/2014 7:06 PM

07/16/2014 7:54 AM

Eighteen-year-old Leah Harshman says this is the fourth year she has attended the Christian Berets’ weeklong summer camp here – about 65 miles east of Modesto in the Sierra Nevada – for special-needs people.

She says the camp gives her time to hang out with other girls. She likes the campfires, where campers sing songs about Jesus and dance and watch the sun go down. She likes when campers can sleep outdoors one night under the stars. And she loves water day, which includes the campers – with the help of visiting firefighters – turning a fire hose on the camp counselors.

“I get to spray them,” Harshman said with a laugh.

The Modesto-based Christian Berets have operated summer camps for people with special needs for 44 years. The camps have been held at the 46-acre Christian Berets Conference & Retreat Center in Mi-Wuk Village for about two decades.

Executive Director Tom Crooker said his father, Don, founded the nonprofit organization to provide a Christ-focused summer camp for people with physical and developmental disabilities. Most of the campers have Down syndrome or cerebral palsy, though some are autistic. The campers range in age from teens to adults, and many come back year after year.

The Christian Berets have run five weeklong camps this summer, with the final one this week. This week’s camp is focused on teens and young adults.

Summer camps director Chad Willson said about 150 campers have attended this summer. Crooker said scholarships are available to help cover the camp fee.

Harshman is from Gridley in Butte County, about 130 miles north of Modesto. But most of the campers are from the Modesto and Stockton areas.

The camp gives participants a chance to be outdoors in a wholesome setting, and Willson said it gives their families and caretakers a temporary break from looking after someone with a disability.

Still, Modesto resident Gina Lopez said she was nervous about sending her 15-year-old daughter, Ezra, to camp this week. It’s the first time Ezra, who has cerebral palsy, has been away from home. But Lopez said her daughter is at that age where she wants to be more independent and with other teenagers.

Lopez said she is feeling better after checking in with the camp counselors, who told her Ezra is happy and having a great time.

“She doesn’t get this kind of interaction and activity,” Lopez said. “Other kids her age are going to the fair. This camp is something I can do for her and something she wants. This camp is awesome.”

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