Blazing a Trail – One Special Kid at a Time
by Judi Christy

If you were asked to name a trailblazer, who would you choose?  Amelia Earhart?  Jackie Robinson? Steve Jobs? Someone else who navigated the world through different eyes and with a different sense of purpose?

There’s lots of trailblazers, really; individuals who make new tracks through unfamiliar territories.   

But, my guess is that you wouldn’t look to a 12-year-old kid with Smith Magenis Syndrome and give him that tag.  But that’s just what the Akron Area YMCA and Akron Rotary Camp for Children decided to do.  This summer, like the eight summers before it, TRAILBLAZERS was the name of the camp, funded by  Portage County DD, and available to kids, from 6-22 years – who, just like Earhart, Robinson and Jobs find new ways to navigate the world around them.

“Some of these kids are a little more medically fragile than others” said Grace Doman, assistant director of the Trailblazers program, located in Brady Lake, Ohio.  “Some of them have to be tube-fed, other are in wheelchairs and require a little more personal assistance with things.”

Yet, they find a way to be kids – and summer campers.

“We do the same types of things that all the other kiddos get to do – carnival themes and visits from zoo animals,” said Doman, an intervention specialist with Stow-Munroe Falls City Schools, who has spent the seven summers with the Trailblazers Camp at Happy Days School. 

Her counterpart and site director, Wendy Reynolds, is also a seven year veteran and a school-year intervention specialist at Northwest Local Schools.   “We try to do a lot of fun stuff – but we also spend time trying to push the kids out of their comfort zone.”

Even though some of the kids have the same diagnosis (ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, hearing loss, Down Syndrome or blindness), they are all unique.  “The tricky part is to keep everyone engaged as we go through our programs like Arts and Crafts, Swimming, Nature, Sports/Leisure – You can’t just have one lesson planned and assume that everyone will be at the same pace,” said Courtney Steinhauser, Program Director and an interventional specialist, with Wendy, at Northwest Local Schools.

The staff is well trained.  They need to be.

As with the other staff and counselors working with special needs campers, intensive training, following American Camp Association standards, is done at Rotary Camp, with the Happy Days staff taking additional on-site training specific to the medical and emotional needs and challenges that will be faced by the specific campers who they will encounter.  With a ratio of 3 campers per adult counselor, there is a close connection immediately established and carried throughout the summer.  Nursing staff are also on site and several counselors certified in life-saving skills. 

Many of these counselors, working at Rex Lake or Portage , are recruited from The University of Akron and Kent State University; student who are pursuing degrees in Special Education or Health Care.  Yet, trailblazers of their own, a few counselors are majoring in Fashion Design, Criminal Justice and Business.

“I really couldn’t imagine spending my summer doing anything else,” said Grace Doman.

And, apparently, many of the kids and their families feel the same. 

“Most of our campers stay with us all summer,” said Wendy, explaining that Trailblazers is broken down into six 1-week sessions.  A lot of the campers attend the actual Happy Days School, where the Trailblazers program is housed, so they are familiar with the surroundings and the routine, making it more a continuance of their care and not an interruption.  She added that over 90% of campers return the following summer.

“We know that we’re taking care of the kid, but we’re also taking care of the parents,” said Grace, adding that several of the returning families have multiple children attending the camp this summer. 

“Our job is to give these kids a way to just be kids.  We want them to have fun, see what they really can do and know that they can find ways to get through any challenges they may face.”

Trailblazers indeed.  All of them.

Contact Information

Akron Area YMCA
50 S. Main Street, Ste. LL 100
Akron, Ohio 44308
(330) 376-1335