Beba attendees thrive at integrated camp

Camp Beba campers Nick Jones, left, and Summer Stevens enjoy painting clay alligators during camp last week. - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
Camp Beba campers Nick Jones, left, and Summer Stevens enjoy painting clay alligators during camp last week.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

When Islander Patty Gregorich sent her two young daughters to Camp Beba last summer, she never expected the shock they were in for. Though River and Sequoia Gregorich, ages 7 and 8 at the time, knew an autistic friend of theirs also attended the day camp, they had no idea they would be the only typically developing children at the camp that week.

When the girls came home the first evening feeling confused and uncomfortable, Patty questioned whether she had made the right decision in sending them to Camp Beba, the only camp in the area for children with special needs — whether learning disorders, behavioral disorders or developmental disabilities — as well as their typical peers.

Ultimately, she explained to the girls that the feelings they were experiencing were normal and asked them to give it another try.

“After that first day they were dying to go,” she said. “They had a great experience.”

Now, Patty says, when River and Sequoia talk about Camp Beba, they focus on how much fun they had — the fishing, playing and candy making — and not on the differences of the campers, whom they grew to know simply as friends by the end of the week.

“The kids were just kids to them,” Patty said. “That always gets me teared up because kids are so accepting and open.”

Patty says she would recommend Camp Beba over any other camp her children have attended on the Island. Though other camps may offer similar activities, she said, nothing could compare with the experience of doing those things with others who are different.

“They gain so much from spending time with the different kids because each one has such a sweet wonderful personality,” she said. “I see that one week had a huge impact on them.”

Camp Beba, the only camp in the area for children with special needs — whether learning disorders, behavioral disorders or developmental disabilities — as well as their typical peers, meets for two weeks each July. Though the camp is based at Vashon High School, campers who attend spend little time in an actual classroom.

In addition to the normal gamut of summer camp activities — games, crafts, swimming and playing in the field — Beba kids take regular trips to the beach, kayak at Jensen Point, go fishing and longboating and take field trips to places such as the Woodland Park Zoo, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, the Pacific Science Center and the Seattle Aquarium.

“My opinion is we have one of the best camps on the Island; people just don’t know about it,” said Islander John Mayer, who directs the camp along with his wife, Amelia Mayer.

Though it’s true that there is rarely a dull moment at the camp, John and Amelia, who both teach special education at the Vashon Island School District, believe that Beba’s success lies not in the activities that fill the week, but the acceptance that campers feel and the confidence they build while they are there.

“It’s a safe environment when everyone is included,” John said. “The acceptance piece is huge, being able to be who you are.”

Islander Raven Pyle-McCrackyn says that her family schedules its summer around Camp Beba, which she calls “two weeks of magic.”

Her son James McCrackyn, a small and freckle-faced third-grader, thrives at the camp, where Raven says he not only loves the activities, but is doted on by campers and counselors who understand him.

“They really enjoy him for who he is,” she said. “He’s not the autistic kid; he’s James. They get his weird humor and they celebrate things that are important to him.”

Since James began attending Camp Beba three or four summers ago, Raven says she has noticed a stark difference in the way he interacts with others, a difference she credits to the camp.

“He often doesn’t like his peers, and Camp Beba is the first time he enjoyed being around his peers,” she said. “That’s something he’s become more and more interested in, being confident around people his own age.”

Raven wishes more Islanders would attend the camp, which gives James the unique opportunity to interact with his typical peers in a setting outside of school. “I think if more people knew about it there would be a ton of typical kids there because they do so many fun things,” she said.

John and Amelia echoed her sentiments. Approximately 10 children attend Camp Beba each week, and on average only one to three of them are typical peers.

John believes Camp Beba is known by many on the Island as a camp only for special needs children, and he and Amelia are working to fight that image and welcome more kids to the camp each summer.

“We are completely, 100-percent all-inclusive,” John said. “We’re really trying to promote ourselves as a camp for everyone, because that’s what it is.”

Islander Judith Comstock has seen the acceptance that is promoted at Camp Beba carry on into the school year. Her daughter Summer Stevens, who has attended the camp for about six summers and has Down syndrome, has bonded with the high schoolers who act as counselors at the camp. When the school year starts again, many of them make efforts to continue their relationships with the special needs students at the school, talking with them in the hall or inviting them to sit with them at lunch or assemblies.

“I’ll be walking down the street with Summer and high school kids will call to her. It will be kids who have been with her at Camp Beba,” Judith said. “She is accepted by them and accepted as a fellow high school kid.”

Amelia has been very encouraged by the high schoolers’ efforts to include their peers who have gone largely ignored by the student body.

“It’s been nice they’ve been so willing to continue that into the year,” she said.

Counselor retention has been high at Camp Beba.

“Our goal is to have one counselor per camper; sometimes we get more,” John said.

In fact, this year Camp Beba had more than enough high schoolers sign on to work at the camp, some being paid and some with less experience volunteering their time.

“They have as much fun as the kids,” John said.

Unfortunately, he added, having a larger than normal staff also means higher operating costs.

“It’s an expensive camp to run,” he said.

However, the Vashon Park District offers scholarships to families who can’t make the tuition of $375 for one week or $675 for both weeks. Park district program coordinator Susan McCabe said the district is happy to subsidize the program so that anyone who wants to attend can attend.

“We provide reduced fees for all our programs,” she said. “Parents can receive from 25 to 100 percent support based on income and number of people in the household.”

John and Amelia are very appreciative that the park district helps Camp Beba continue to serve the Vashon community.

“The park district is amazing. They have voted for us to be fully funded no matter what,” John said.

Even with a partial scholarship, however, Patty Gregorich said she couldn’t afford to send her daughters back to Camp Beba again this summer, opting to pay for swimming lessons instead. But she is certain River and Sequoia will return to Camp Beba in the future and hopes the parents of other typically developing children will consider doing the same. “I could not recommend it highly enough. … It’s benefitted them in such a meaningful way,” she said.

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