A swish, splash and cheers around the Stark Recreation Center pool on the Mississippi University for Women campus Wednesday sum up, in their way, what Camp with a Mission is about. Summertime dips or shots at the hoop may seem ho-hum to some, but not to the 20 or so guys and girls at this two-week special needs day camp. It’s put on by the nonprofit organization Special Needs, Special Spirit, previously known as ARC of Lowndes County. No one involved gets a salary. Everyone involved has a passion for the mission.
Norma Jones was instrumental in getting the organization off the ground after her son, Peter Jr., was born with Down Syndrome. He’s now 23.
“When Peter came along, we didn’t have anything like this in Columbus, and that was my first motivation,” Jones says. “I just wanted him to have friends. I wanted him to be included in society — and in helping him, it helps everybody.”
Throughout the year, Special Needs, Special Spirit organizes events including a bowling league and family fun days at Lake Lowndes State Park or Dewayne Hayes Campground for those with special needs. Goals are activity, socialization, education and support. Day camp was added three years ago. It offers gym time, arts and crafts, swimming, music therapy, speakers and social interaction.
“The first year of camp we had about 8,” says Jones. “The second year about 12. This year we’ve maxed out at 20.” Most of this summer’s campers live in Lowndes County, but a few are from Monroe County. Activities are open to the Golden Triangle area. “We don’t turn anyone away,” Jones says.
Name that tune
The slap of wet feet on tile signals the end of swim time as campers clear the pool. Now to change into dry clothes and head to music therapy. It’s time to get a groove on.
“Lady Gaga!” someone is soon calling out in response to the opening strains of the tune “Born This Way.” “Beyonce!” when “Single Ladies” begins. Everyone is seated around tables in a U-shape. Kendra Keesee stands in front, emceeing this game of Musical Jeopardy. She lets campers pick from three categories: Name that Tune, Finish the Line or Name the Artist.
After a category is selected, Keesee plays a tune through Apple Music on her phone for the group. Michael Jackson, Taylor Swift, Sam Smith, Meghan Trainor, Elvis Presley, Selena Gomez — a few of the participants are familiar with almost all of the artists or songs.
“I know it!” camper Holly Rushing says more than once, singing along to One Direction or Pharell Williams.
“Now I’m going to throw a challenge out there,” smiles Keesee in the middle of the game. Then the distinctive guitar intro to Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line” plays to a silent room, stumping campers (but resonating with volunteers of a certain age).
The stimulating game is one of several ways Keesee is engaging participants. The MUW senior music therapy major is working on her Music Therapy Clinical Practicum II class this summer and welcomed the opportunity to help. In addition to Jeopardy, she’s devised a version of Musical Twister. Each color circle on the Twister mat corresponds to a specific genre, but only Keesee knows which ones. (Yellow is pop. Green is Christian or gospel. Red is hip hop or rap. Blue is country.)
Each camper gets two “eggs” to toss on the mat. Keesee plays a song correlating to the color the eggs land on and participants try to identify the genre, song or singer. Keesee is delighted to see some campers work together to come up with answers for their team.
“I like seeing the faces light up when they hear a song they knew because they knew they were going to get a point,” she smiles.
One participant in a wheelchair is nonverbal, but her joy in the music is evident in a wide, infectious smile and the nodding of her head to the rhythms.
“It’s just an amazing experience here,” Keesee says. “Everyone is on a different level, but you can see how music can provide such an outlet. It’s humbling.”
Debbie Taylor is one of about 14 camp volunteers called “buddies.” She already knows many of the campers through her work with Golden Triangle Outdoors which provides recreational activities for special needs individuals. GTO is a camp sponsor.
“The reason we’re so passionate is because we had a special needs son, and we have a special needs grandson. We’re always trying to figure out ways that our loved ones could enjoy things that everybody else enjoys.”
At camp, volunteers assist with crafts, accompany campers back and forth to the gym, pool and music therapy. They join in at lunch, too, when everyone chills out in a central rec area with pool tables and big screen TV. It’s an important time of socialization.
“A lot of times, families that have special needs members can’t go out and do things others do,” says Taylor. “We all need opportunities to be out and just interact with other people. It enhances quality of life.”
Special Needs, Special Spirit exists solely through donations and annual memberships, which are $25 for individuals or families; $40 for corporate membership. It receives no government funding. Norma Jones and her husband, Peter Sr., and others like the group’s president Rice Glover and camp committee members Cindy Burks and Ann Shelton carry on, alongside other committed volunteers. The rewards are paid in smiles and hugs. Jones considers it a ministry.
“Sometimes people with special needs feel isolated and don’t always have friends. Here they have that; they can make lifelong friends. … Our motto is, each person is differently and wonderfully made.”
Editor’s note: Special Needs, Special Spirit is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The mailing address is P.O. Box 5381, Columbus, MS 39704. For more information, contact Jones at 662-352-3184 or follow the group on Facebook.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.