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Day camp for developmentally disabled sparks up

For the nearly 50 kids who were hard at play at the Sheridan Park Recreation Center gym late Monday morning, the day was already special enough.

These happy campers were enjoying the first day of Camp Sparky, a Bremerton Parks and Recreation day camp for developmentally disabled youth. The group had just finished storytime and games with camp counselors when word came of a special delivery waiting outside.

As the kids sat in the middle of the gym floor brimming with anticipation, about seven Bremerton firefighters came in carrying a tarp loaded with 100 athletic balls. Shouts of excitement echoed through the gym as the kids rushed to pick up one of the soccer balls, footballs, volleyballs and basketballs donated by Bremerton Firefighters IAFF Local 437, the local firefighter’s union.

“We’ve done stuff with Camp Sparky before and we thought it’d be a neat deal,” said Bremerton IAFF Local 437 President Todd Thorsen. “A lot of these kids don’t get the chances that average kids do, so this is a neat program.”

Camp Sparky campers and counselors couldn’t agree more. The program, which began in 1984, is the only summer recreation program in Kitsap County for those with disabilites between 6-21 years old.

“They live a hard enough life as it is, so it’s nice to be able to brighten up their summers a bit,” said eighth-year counselor Grady Rawls, 25, of Port Orchard. “You just fall in love with the kids and you get to watch them all grow — they sort of become your kids.”

The camp runs five days a week from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. during two separate three-week summer sessions, with 50 campers per session. Program costs are met through funding by the city of Bremerton, private donations, and registration fees of $250 for Bremerton residents and $300 for those who live outside the city.

Camp Sparky Director Wanda Mae said the 27 staffers at Camp Sparky go through intense training, including how to take care of campers with certain medical conditions, how to lift them in and out of wheelchairs, and First Aid and CPR. The camp has a 3-to-1 camper-to-counselor ratio, with the most needy of campers receiving 1-on-1 attention.

“For the most part we can pretty much handle any situation that comes around,” Rawls said. “Each child is different and you have to find out what makes them smile and just relate with them.”

Typical camp activities range from arts and crafts, cooking and watching movies, all at the Sheridan Park Recreation Center, to going swimming at nearby Jarstad Pool. This year, campers can also go ice skating twice a week at the new Bremerton Ice Arena, and accommodations will be made for those who cannot physically skate so that they can still get out on the ice.

“The counselors are really good at adapting the activities to their campers,” Mae said. “We try to find something they like doing so that they’re having a good time and interacting with at least their counselor.”

Most older and more mobile campers comprise a group called day trippers, who more frequently travel into the community for their activities than do the youngsters. In past years, day trippers have taken outings to Safeco Field, Tacoma Raniers games, local museums and parks, and movie theaters.

Kitsap Access provides buses and drivers to transport the kids at a cost of $10 per month per camper, as well as vans to transport camp staff. The Access buses transports campers to and from activities as well as between home and camp. The Bremerton School District also provides school buses, for a small fee, to take campers to and from activities.

“These kids are so real, they don’t put on any kind of pretense,” Mae said. “Every day we have a situation where one of these kids are turned on, they just light up. It’s the most wonderful thing to see that.”

Along with returning campers, several counselors also return to Camp Sparky year after year. Many said their appreciation for the kids and their desire to create a fun and memorable experience for both the campers and for themselves keeps drawing them back.

“It’s such a rewarding job and it makes you feel good working with these kids — there’s nowhere else you can find kids as loving, honest and true,” said seventh-year counselor Adam Gent, 19, of Bremerton. “It is an opportunity for everybody to see life from a different view and it influences not only the kids’ lives but the people that work with the kids as well. I definately think it’s made me a better person, 10-fold.”

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