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WESTTOWN — After nine months of school, those summer months can sometimes have a negative effect on children with intellectual and related disabilities when they lose that consistent, daily learning.
But those children across Chester County have had a place to go since 1980 to give them that chance to continue learning — and that’s Bournelyf Special Camp in West Chester.
“It started as a service project of (Church of the Loving Shepherd), which has the grounds here,” said Carly Hamond, a former Bournelyf counselor and now the coordinator of the camp’s Hand-to-Hand 5K. “Some members of the church wanted to start something that existed in the summer for this population because there was, at that time, nothing. There was nothing for them when school would end.”
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Nine years later, the camp became a nonprofit organization.
Many of the campers have an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
“To have that huge gap of three months with nothing going on, parents saw a need for a summer program,” Hamond said.
That first year, the camp had only about 10 children.
Now, the camp — which takes youth from age 8 through 25 — sees about 40 to 50 children per sessions over the summer.
Bournelyf’s mission is to “develop participants’ abilities by helping them build confidence, improve social and communication skills and become more physically fit through challenging, but achievable physical activities and by interaction with others.”
The day camp runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is mostly outdoors and recreational. It also runs in two-week sessions over the six weeks.
The youth are placed into groups to participate in different activities, which can vary from swimming, hiking, boating to horseback riding and physical conditioning.
For the 18 to 25 group, called Expedition, the focus at the camp is to prepare them for life outside of the classroom.
“We try to do more job development and community work because that’s where they all are,” Hamond said. “They’re all finishing school and the question is what is going to be their next step? This population is tough.”
The Expedition group also has the chance to ride SEPTA and teach them lessons on public transportation.
The older campers take trips into the community as well, such as visiting Pocopson Home, a nursing home down the road from Bournelyf.
“We try to show them all these avenues they could take,” Hamond said. “They’re also a really good face for us to put out there to show we can give back to the community. I think some people interpret us as always needing to take from the community and these guys actually give back a lot.”
The older group is a little more special for the fact that most of them have been attending Bournelyf since they were allowed to first come at 8 years old.
Emily, 18, and Catherine, 21, are two of the many who started when they were 8 and have continued coming to the camp.
“We have just wonderful times,” Emily said. “I like swimming.”
For Catherine, her favorite activity at the camp is lunch, during which they get to sit in the picnic grove or at a park.
The younger campers, ages 8 to 17, are split up into Trailblazers — who do horseback riding at Thorncroft Equestrian Center, canoeing and hiking — and Show Stoppers.
The Show Stoppers, which only happens during the middle sessions, allows the campers to put on a show every summer, giving them a chance to perform that they might not get at school.
“Compared to most of the schools they go to, they finally get to be in a show and not just an audience member,” Hamond said. “It’s a big part of camp. We have all these alumni that come back and sit in the crowd. It’s very emotional with lots of tears and laughter.”
All the activities the camp provides is to help the youth improve in numerous areas, but in a way that doesn’t feel like work.
“For them, it’s not school or another assessment or structured time,” Hamond said. “We’re working on a lot of things they need to get better at, but it’s in a completely different atmosphere and most of the counselors here are peers.
The camp counselors themselves don’t feel it as work either and they also know the good they’re doing along the way.
“Almost every staff member, including myself, would say that we don’t even feel like we’re doing work,” Hamond said. “There are so many life lessons here to be learned. I kept coming back because I knew I was becoming a better person. I got to see what it means to reach goals and keep moving forward. That’s exactly what these guys are doing.”
For more information on Bournelyf Special Camp, visit www.campbournelyf.org.