William Crandel: Students stretch abilities at Camp Leo

Published 2:19 pm Monday, July 1, 2013

Every summer, Crystal Springs Camp and Retreat Center in Dowagiac hosts Camp Leo for children with special needs. The four-day camp, which takes place in June, is sponsored by the various Lions Clubs of Southwestern Michigan and is operated by Berrien RESA. The 30th anniversary of the camp featured activities, games and events for kids.

For the past six years, DeLynn Bushouse-Williams, of Berrien Springs, has been the director of Camp Leo and, as a teacher for Berrien RESA at the Blossomland Learning Center, she said she enjoys the fact so many of her students are able to attend each summer.

“My students look forward to going to the camp all year long,” she said. “Some of them even have their bags packed weeks in advance in anticipation.”

Camp Leo is funded by the Lions Clubs and through private donors so the kids can attend for a minimal charge. This year, an anonymous donor who calls himself “the secret agent” donated a sizable amount of money that allowed the camp to bring in a hot air balloon.

The camp usually averages about 40 campers per year who range in age from 10 to 10. Children with all types of disabilities are welcomed, and most are from Southwest Michigan with one who traveled as far away as Jackson.

Much of the campers’ day is spent playing games designed to help the children with gross and fine motor skills, problem solving and team building.

“We refer to the games as the Lion Olympics in honor of Leo the Lion, the mascot of the Lions Clubs and in kind of a tribute for the wonderful generosity the Lion’s have shown us through the years,” Bushouse-Williams said. “The campers are divided up into four teams, one for each cabin, and the teams are given different-colored shirts. The names of each of the Lion Olympics games all start with lion for instance, softball is referred to as lion ball and corn hole is the lion toss and we use bean bag lions; we also have lion laser tag and capture the lion’s tail instead of capture the flag.”

Other events include an ice cream social, dances, a talent show and Monday night, featuring “The Lion King” and “The Jungle Book.” Other activities include canoeing, a 100-foot Slip and Slide, a swimming pool, pedal car races, a potato cannon and sing-a-longs around the campfire.

The biggest event is Lion’s Carnival Night, in which various Lion’s clubs participate. For instance, Galien makes snow cones, Three Rivers brings cotton candy, Fairplain makes water balloons, St. Joseph conducts games and face painting and the Coloma Lioness’ conduct games and hand out an award for the most improved campers. The night culminates in a talent show.

This year, Camp Leo had about 20 staff members, exceeding state requirements for a special needs camp. The camp also employs a fulltime nurse for the week to monitor those with medical needs. The camp nurse this year was Alison Rineer, of St. Joseph, and she was a first-time volunteer at Camp Leo.

“Having once been an employee at Blossomland Learning Center, I love being here and having the opportunity to see so many of my former students and being able to work with them once again. They’re such a special groups of kids. I love them dearly, and I love seeing them have so much fun,” Rineer said.

At the end of the four days, many of the counselors leave not only exhausted but with a sense of fulfillment.

“Camp Leo not only gives our campers a lifetime of memories but for the counselors as well. Seven of my previous staff members have decided to go into special education and other jobs working with the disabled because of their experiences here,” Bushouse-Williams said.

Whitney Marie Shacknies, of Berrien Springs, is one of those counselors and has worked at Camp Leo for the past six years.

“I’ve loved every minute that I’ve worked there. So many people don’t understand how much love these kids have to offer. Just seeing them happy and having so much fun doing things they don’t normally get to do I think has been my favorite thing about being a counselor,” Shacknies said.

Camp Leo has been held at different locations throughout its 30-year history but, for the past four years, it has been held at the Crystal Springs Camp and Retreat Center along the banks of the Dowagiac River.

According to Dan Stuglik, director of Crystal Springs Camp, the 150-year-old camp is the oldest religious camp in the state and was built by the United Methodist Church for camp revivals. Crystal Springs runs 10 camps through the year, including an arts camp, a camp for local high school kids and a rustic Laura Ingells Wilder camp.

“Crystal Springs and its staff have been just wonderful to us. Many of their regular staff members are off on the days we are here but come back and help us out because they love working with our kids,” Bushouse-Williams said.

Stuglik agrees, saying his staff looks forward to having the special-needs campers there.

“Camp Leo is one of the highlights of the year for the staff, and we love working with the kids and providing a safe and comfortable environment for them,” he said.

Many campers pack weeks in advance in anticipation of Camp Leo (Leader photo/WILLIAM CRANDELL).

Many campers pack weeks in advance in anticipation of Camp Leo (Leader photo/WILLIAM CRANDELL).

One of the new staff members this year, was Julie Bartells of Jackson, who is the assistant to the director and keeps the camp’s paperwork in order. She is also in charge of the edible Lion crafts, which are snacks shaped like a lion.

“I like interacting with the kids. I love their excitement as they get to do things that they might not normally be able to do,” Bartells said. “I also love watching the other counselors as they get to interact with the kids. It seems like they enjoy being here as much as the campers.”