By Jeremy Dunn
There is something magical about Indiana summers. Just the mere mention of the word summer sparks countless childhood memories for many Hoosiers. It is likely several of these vivid recollections involve the outdoors: playing by the water, spending time at a park and barbeques with family. Then, there is the long-lost gift that is summer camp. How could anyone forget the opportunity to spend time away from home out in the wilderness creating friendships, building a respect for nature and making memories that will last a lifetime?
Henry David Thoreau once stated, “I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” Unfortunately, fewer children are getting the opportunity to experience this “walk in the woods” each summer. However, thanks to the work of Greenwood resident, Jennifer Kobylarz and her organization, CHAMP Camp, a very special group gets to experience camp and take “a walk” each summer.
A vision is born
In early 1991, David Carter, a hospital administrator with a background in respiratory therapy and Nancy McCurdy, a child life specialist, came together to form a shared vision. The duo wanted to provide a summer overnight camping experience for children with tracheostomies or requiring technological or ventilator assistance.
While working in a pediatric rehabilitation, Carter and McCurdy saw many children diagnosed with quadriplegia, a spinal condition that usually results in a paralysis of all four limbs, benefit from the advances in technology and medical science. Even though these patients were receiving a chance at life, they required around the clock attention and support, making them unable to participate in many childhood activities such as camping. That realization drove the pair to make it their mission to make the outdoors accessible to these children. By August 1991, CHAMP Camp was born, receiving incorporated status from the state of Indiana and becoming an established 501c3 nonprofit.
The summer camp experience
In its earlier years, CHAMP Camp was hosted at Recreation Unlimited in Ashley, Ohio. As the program continued to grow, it was relocated to Bradford Woods in Martinsville. Owned by Indiana University and nationally-recognized for its outdoor education and therapeutic recreation, Bradford Woods became the perfect location for CHAMP Camp.
The Indiana location allowed the organization to build on their mission of providing an outdoor summer camp experience for young patients with tracheostomies or require respiratory assistance. Participants are given the opportunity to engage in activities such as swimming, canoeing and climbing while building independence, confidence and self-esteem.
CHAMP Campers spend an entire week at Bradford Woods with a group of nurses, therapists, speech pathologists, specialists, teachers, physicians and recreational professionals, who volunteer their time to be “counselors” and help establish a feeling of community for participants. Jennifer Kobylarz, executive director of CHAMP Camp, shared, “Our volunteers are truly awesome. They really take a week away from their jobs to be friends and mentors.”
Soaring to new heights
As the popularity of CHAMP Camp grew, the organization continued to look for ways to offer more to campers each summer. During the fall of 2012, the nonprofit’s founders dreamt of building an accessible zip-line for CHAMP Campers to experience. A few years later, CHAMP Camp was able to turn this dream into a reality. “We always let our imaginations run wild when trying to find ways to create new experiences and memories for our campers. We are proud to say that in partnership with the Finish Line Youth Foundation in 2014, we constructed a 375-foot accessible zip-line for our campers to enjoy. Since many of our campers have wheelchairs and ventilators, getting the chance to zip line through the trees was an amazing new reality and experience,” Kobylarz stated.
The dream does not end there. The Greenwood resident went on to include that the nonprofit’s next vision includes a wheelchair accessible ramp (that is currently being completed) and treehouse for participants. The best part? The executive director explains, “It’s about so much more than just CHAMP Camp. Nearly 900 kids with chronic illnesses and disabilities from camps like Camp Riley, Little Red Door, Muscular Dystrophy Association and Easter Seals will have the opportunity to enjoy an amazing new experience they simply can’t anywhere else.”
A shared vision
While CHAMP Camp have provided countless memories for their special campers for the past several years, maybe their biggest impact can be seen in how they bring support together for their vision. Being a nonprofit organization, one can imagine the financial cost associated with providing an opportunity of this scale and never turning away a family due to expenses. CHAMP Camp has created a shared vision with the Indianapolis community and drawn its support through two annual fundraisers: the Silver Sneaker Benefit Ball and a golf outing.
Hosted at the Conrad in Indianapolis, the Silver Sneaker Ball includes a cocktail hour, Bourbon pull, a live and silent auction, as well as dancing throughout the evening. For the past two years, this popular fundraiser has seen the Indianapolis Colts serve as the Presenting Sponsor and Colts offensive lineman Anthony Castonzo has attended in his support of this amazing cause, making it the organization’s largest fundraising event of the year.
This year’s golf outing will take place on Aug. 29 at the Hickory Stick Golf Club in Greenwood.
The value of the ‘walk’
Remembering the words of Thoreau, one cannot help but be moved by CHAMP Camp’s vision of using nature to build individuals up against insurmountable challenges. The famed naturalist used his “walk” in nature to represent the personal growth that nature can provide. As CHAMP Camp prepares for its 28th year of camp from June 17 – 21, thanks to the work of Kobylarz and the organization, everyone involved, from the campers to the volunteers to the donors, can walk a little taller this summer.
Three questions with CHAMP Camp Executive Director Jennifer Kobylarz:
What is CHAMP Camp’s greatest moment? I would say that CHAMP Camp does not have just one greatest moment. Every summer we celebrate magical moments each and every time one of our campers experiences a new accomplishment or develops a new friendship.
What is next for CHAMP Camp? Our next goal is to build a wheelchair accessible treehouse at Bradford Woods. In the past five years, we have funded and built two accessible zip lines and a wheelchair accessible ramp leading up into the staging area for the zip lines. The treehouse will be the final phase of this project.
Can you share one of the best comments you’ve heard at CHAMP Camp? Our favorite comment is from one of our campers. After coming down the zip line, they said they finally felt free from their wheelchair and that they felt like they were flying.
For more information on CHAMP Camp, check out CHAMPCamp.org.
Also, check out CHAMP Camp on Facebook.