Parenting is not for the faint of heart. Parenting a child with mental, emotional, or behavioral challenges adds a whole new layer of complexity to what is already a stretching experience. For five upstate New York moms this complexity—and the stress, shame and despair that accompany it—was something they knew well because they had lived it first-hand in their own homes.
To combat the seemingly endless barrage of difficult daily experiences, one of these moms, Nancy, and her family went camping. Every year, they spent two weeks in the Adirondacks together exploring the wonders of nature, enjoying water activities, hiking trails, and most importantly creating positive family memories that sustained them and gave them hope. It became her vision that other hurting families would have the opportunity to enjoy these same positive interactions and find hope.
One day,when she was unexpectedly asked by her boss of sorts what she wanted to do when she retired, Nancy blurted out, “Well, my vision would always be that families could feel safe enough to experience camp.” To her surprise, the response she received that day was, “Well, go do that—create that.”
Having a vision for what could be but no idea where to even begin, Nancy went to her own support system—her peer-advocate friends. Being peer advocates meant Nancy and her friends all had lived experience as parents of children with mental and behavioral challenges. In their roles, they were all choosing to share their expertise and willingly give back to do what someone did for them or what they wished they’d had when their children were diagnosed.
Among these friends, she found four women—Pam, Liz, Marge, and Vicky—who were willing to be a part of making this vision a reality. They had no idea what they were doing, but they were excited. They gathered information and met every week for almost a year to evaluate what they had and figure out the next step. They each contributed their skills. They found out how to become a registered nonprofit; they themselves became the first board of directors; they found a camp they could rent at an affordable price and figured out a way to feed people, manage the application process, and address safety issues. And all along the way, they collected people, telling them about camp and inviting them to come. They knew that if they could just get parents to muster the strength to overcome their fear and come, they would be encouraged.
Because most of their children attended summer school, they decided to hold multiple camp sessions back to back over the two-week period in August between the end of summer school and the beginning of the new school year. This two week period was a notoriously difficult time for parents of children with behavioral challenges because children were used to the structure of summer school and suddenly had two weeks with no structure. They decided each session should be 4 days long because their personal experience taught them that they could be successful for that amount of time.
These ladies saw that year of weekly planning meetings pay off as their first ever camp sessions at Covenant Acres Camp were wildly successful. State organizations wrote checks to send families to camp, local farmers donated food and delivered it to camp, a butcher provided chicken leg quarters at $.29/pound, the Erie County school bus mechanics union donated a dozen kayaks and life preservers, service providers and commissioners of mental health came out to volunteer.
At camp, families made crafts, enjoyed the outdoors, played games, and created happy memories. Providers got to see families in a light they’d never seen before because the families weren’t in crisis. They saw kids listening and families being successful. Families found support and community. They found normalcy where there was no normalcy as everyone lined up for medication. They saw they were not alone; there were others like them.
At camp, Nancy and her friends were able to help parents find a good day, keep that in their mind’s eye, and then say, “Now, let’s do that again.” Parents experienced the power of families helping families. Getting to know other families who lived their struggles and were surviving, they experienced hope, and these five moms saw their mission birthed into a real, tangible experience.
Today, that same camp experience continues as Camp Get-A-Way celebrates equipping and encouraging families for over 20 years. Not only does the mission continue, but the need is now greater than ever, with mental, emotional, and behavioral challenges in children ages 3-17 reaching all-time highs.
Given this difficult reality, Camp Get-A-Way is raising funds and preparing to grow by providing more camp scholarships, expanding camp locations, and offering sessions at various times throughout the year in order to make it easier for more families facing mental, emotional, and behavioral challenges to find help and hope through the family camp experience. As we grow, we’ll be replicating the Camp Get-A-Way family camp experience all over the state of New York, eventually expanding to other states as well so that every family who wants it can experience the joys, community, and hope that are so needed today.