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July 15, 2010

Rock Hill program gives those with disabilities summer camp experience

Now in its 40th year, Rock Hill's Camp Arc is the only summer camp of its kind in York County. Therapeutic recreation specialists run the camp for children and adults with disabilities.

In the gym at Boyd Hill Recreation Center in Rock Hill, adults who can't speak play volleyball.

In another room there, arts and crafts, and in yet another room - standing room only - stands the karaoke machine.

One has not lived until hearing Billy Dover, at Camp Arc for people with special needs, singing with his eyes closed words he knows by heart - with the room backing him up with whatever words they have - "All My Ex's Live in Texas."

That's the welcome to Camp Arc - the only summer camp of its kind in York County, now in its 40th year.

The Rock Hill Parks, Recreation and Tourism department's group of therapeutic recreation specialists run the camp for children and adults with disabilities.

This summer, in weeklong camps split up by age group and disability levels, more than 375 people who normally would never be able to go to summer camp get a chance to swim, laugh and learn.

"I get to hang out, meet people, and make new friends," said Stephanie Finnigan, 20, a camper from York. "I love it."

There are two blind campers with guide dogs. Campers in wheelchairs. Campers without speech.

But what each camper has - from the tiniest kids in early summer to the adults at camp this week - is a smile that will not go away.

The cost for this most special of all summer camps? $15 a week.

"We have field trips, sports, all the stuff that camps normally have," said Wendy Waddle, co-director of Camp Arc. "We just have a population that is special and wouldn't be able to go to a 'regular' camp."

Fellow co-director Scott Wentzky has worked the camp for the past 25 years.

"The idea is that no one is left out," Wentzky said. "Every camper has something to gain in a week. The fun is finding out what that is."

The camp is staffed by Waddle, Wentzky and a host of summer workers and volunteers who have found that after arriving at Camp Arc, their lives change immediately.

Counselor Anna Johnson, 18, heads off in a few weeks to Erskine College to study to be a special education teacher. Volunteering last summer, and working at Camp Arc this summer, helped cement her career path.

"These are the most amazing people in the world, these campers," Johnson said. "They have a wonderful outlook on life. They laugh. They enjoy what they have.

"They learn, and share. They are the most fun-loving people I know."

The camp was founded four decades ago by community groups that saw a need for a camp for the disabled. They started the first therapeutic rehabilitation camp in the state with no money, but a lot of love.

The camp blossomed over the years, volunteers and fundraisers kept it going, then the recreation department came in later with staff and money.

Camp Arc, with an advisory committee of volunteers and PRT staff, now has become a model for other counties, said Kathy Covington, who runs the recreation division for PRT.

The camp ends in a couple of weeks with a week-long camp for disabled adults at Camp Bethelwoods near Lake Wylie. All the spots are filled for this year, but staff hopes next year the camp grows - if donations and volunteerism grow, too.

PRT even uses small buses to get campers to camp and home if the camper's family can't afford a way to get their loved one to Boyd Hill.

"If we had more transportation, we would have even more campers," Wentzky said.

For some campers, the Boyd Hill pool might be the only time - ever - they have supervised safe swimming. Camp provides what might be the only sports games where they are not the last one picked for a team.

It is the only chance for some for a summer camp experience that many kids and parents take for granted.

"At Camp Arc, every camper is a star," said Waddle.

Some are star singers, like Billy Dover.

That 28-year-old karaoke singer has one other favorite song besides "All My Ex's Live in Texas." He belts it out, too, and others with disabilities and special needs join right in however they can.

You might have heard of the song.

"Don't Worry, Be Happy."

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