ADD camp offers fun for campers

It’s a Tuesday night at Camp Siwana, which means one thing for the members of the Association for the Developmentally Disabled summer camp — boat night.

“Be careful!” shouts a counselor, laughing as a group jostles their way down the dock. Five campers make their way onto one of the pontoon boats, greeted by Marge Koscielak, who balances one hand against a cane and rests her other hand on her hip.

“Come on in,” she says, waving each camper on and settling them onto plush leather seats. Her husband pulls the boat away, and Koscielak launches into an easy conversation with the group.

Lucy Grunwald and Samantha Schmidt discuss the latest movies they’ve wanted to see, Finding Dory and The Secret Life of Pets in particular. Sara Posdic comments on how bad the mosquitoes are this year. The group teases Kristy Johanek for her nickname — “Mountain Dew” after her obsession with the soft drink. Lucy’s brother Dan quietly fiddles with the strap of his puffy, bright orange life jacket, watching the water stream by.

“You look like a moviestar in those glasses,” Koscielak says, pointing at Johanek, who is sporting sunglasses that shimmer with sparkles. The group laughs, and Johanek tosses her head back, smiling wide as the reflection of the sun glows on the lake.

Each summer, the Association for the Developmentally Disabled hosts three weeks of summer camps at Camp Siwana. The program has been going on for over two decades, but it’s changed greatly in recent years after moving from Camp TaPaWingo in Mishicot and expanding to include a wider variety of age groups.

Now, the camp is open to anyone over the age of 10, and campers age in range from 14 to 79. Despite a wide variety of ages, disabilities and personalities, each summer’s ADD camp provides a meaningful home and respite for over 40 campers.

For 22 years, Linda Gordon has spent her summers making this camp special. As camp director, she organizes cabins, meals and activities for two full-length weeks of camp and one mini-camp, which lasts for three days.

Each summer, she has seen a wider group of campers — some from other states such as Michigan — enroll for a week or two on the lake. Her hope is to keep the mood light and fun for the week, so that campers can relax and enjoy the time to relax and reconnect to one another.

“This is their week of vacation,” Gordon said. “There’s some that will be so sad at the end, they’ll be in tears because they have to wait a whole year to do it again.”

Most of the camp’s success relies on its counselors, a group of 16 or 17 high school and college students who dedicate a handful of weeks of their summer to caring for the campers. For a week — or more, as many counselors volunteer for multiple sessions — the counselors live in cabins with their group of campers.

They help their campers get dressed and shower, keep them company during meals, teach them how to craft, to fish and sometimes how to swim. Although many of the counselors cite community service hours as their initial reasoning for getting involved, it goes much farther for this group, many of whom are returning after many summers of volunteering with the camp.

“I love being around them,” Madalyn Poff said. A junior at Lincoln High School, Poff has been a counselor for two years. “Their personalities are so diverse. When they come here, they are themselves. They don’t try to be like each other or someone they aren’t. They’re just who they are and it’s great.”

Poff and her fellow counselors are in charge of day-to-day activities, but their most important job is interaction with the campers. Although the campers relish their friendships with one another, they also seek out the counselors, remembering them from year to year and quickly forming bonds. And those relationships are two-way streets.

“It’s just seeing their smiles light up their faces,” said Austin Reimer, a high school senior who has been a counselor for eight years. “I think that’s what really makes it fun. We can really be role models for them.”

On shore after the boat rides, the campers line up so that each counselor can help them out of their life jackets. The group splits up, with half of the campers staying down by the water for a night of fishing.

Since moving to Camp Siwana, the ADD camp has also benefitted from the community surrounding Pigeon Lake. They’ve received donations of over 150 life jackets from the local community, and an anonymous donation of fishing poles and a tackle box. And each year, residents like Koscielak take the campers out on their pontoon boats to cruise around the lake for an hour.

“We wanted to bring some joy to them in whatever way we could,” Koscielak said. “I love watching their faces when we get out on the water. They’ve loved it from the beginning.”

Donations like these help to make the camp special for Gordon. With a week-long fee of $175, the camp doesn’t have the funding to put together these larger events on their own.

Now, nights on the pontoon boats have become the campers’ favorite part of the week, and although they rarely catch any fish longer than a few inches, they still scream with joy any time a line feels a tug. It’s just another small part of making the experience worthwhile for every camper who comes each summer.

“We want the special needs population to have a place to go to be comfortable, have a good time, be with their peers and just be themselves,” Gordon said. “And I think you can see that in the way that the campers act throughout the week. They’re really enjoying themselves.”

As the campers wait for the counselors to untangle the fishing poles and bait their lines, they stand on the shore and sit side-by-side on a picnic table, talking and laughing loudly. Their smiles are wide as they mingle, reaching out for hugs from their friends and counselors.

“I met my favorite friends here,” camper Jeff Bocock said. “I like everything here.”

The group gathered on the shore is eager about every aspect of camp. They love the dinosaur chicken nuggets and smiley face potatoes at dinner. They love coloring during crafts time, swimming and fishing in the lake, spending time on the water, playing basketball together. It’s hard to find something that they don’t talk about animatedly, excitedly.

Except for one thing. They talk about leaving — which won’t come for three more days — in a slightly somber tone. Most of these campers work jobs or go to school back home. But just for this week, they can escape from that life, from any responsibility, and relax.

For the campers, it’s worth much more than they paid for.

“I never want to leave,” long-time camper Cindy Hallada said. “I wish we could stay longer. I don’t know, another year maybe? Maybe another year would be long enough.”