ASHLEY, Ohio (WCMH) — For decades, it has been an annual tradition for some people with disabilities and health concerns to go to Recreation Unlimited for an overnight or day camping experience.
The non-profit’s mission is to provide programing through sports, recreation, and education that builds self-confidence, self-esteem and promotes generally being a good human.
However, this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into the works.
Since March, the organization hasn’t been able to hold any camps. Now, as July begins, they are finally able to reopen to campers, but only on a limited basis.
No overnight residential camps will be held this summer, a sacrifice the organization had to make in order to ensure they can return later this fall. In the meantime, day camps will be held with new health and safety protocols in place.
A new 40-page document covers everything staff needs to know about running the camps, and was developed out of a number of recommendations from leading health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control.
But even getting this far was uncertain a few month ago.
“It was a difficult decision to even make, a decision to open up, but when we looked at all the protocols and we looked at our history and who we are as an organization, we felt that it was important that, yes, this is something that parents and kids and adults and also the adults with disabilities really want to come to camp to have that respite,” said Paul Huttlin, the executive director and CEO of Recreation Unlimited.
Huttlin has been with the organizations since 1997. He was a board member who applied for the CEO job and got it. His son was born with a disability, so one of his driving forces behind his passions is ensuring these camps continue to be a source of joy for people like his son.
“Every camp is a challenge, because we’re working with individuals with disabilities and health concerns. We know there’s challenges just going into on a normal basis. Adding COVID-19 and all of the medical protocols, that’s just an additional challenge,” said Huttlin. “If you plan properly and you take that time and you look at it from the big picture, it’s not just camp, it’s funding, it’s the facility, it’s all the supplies, it’s the PPE. If you take all of that into consideration, you can open a safe camp.”
The plan this summer is to run five weeks of day camps to make sure the 40-page manual has everything covered and addressed. Then, on weekends this fall and winter, return to overnight residential camps.
“We’re just running a day camp because we feel like we should just put our toe in the water, so to speak ,and make sure that all of the protocols that we have on paper, and make sure our training actually can be put down to practice,” said Huttlin.
On day two of the first week, things have been going smoothly so far. Counselors are staying on site in the new residential hall where they can spread out and maintain social distancing. The new hall sleeps more than 60, so there is plenty of space.
During the day, counselors handle up to three campers at a time. This helps them keep things under control so that health protocols can be followed. There is a bevy of hand sanitizer everywhere you look outside and inside buildings. It is part of the protocol that every time you enter or exit a space, hand sanitizer is used, even if you just used some.
Disinfectant is also being used liberally. Tuesday was too hot for many outdoor activities, so the indoor climbing wall was used instead. After every climber, all of the gear they used, from the harness to the helmet, was sprayed down with disinfectant.
Temperatures are taken and masks are worn by all counselors and campers unless the situation doesn’t allow for it, and then it is only briefly for that activity.
This opportunity for people with disabilities is coming at a great cost. The organization is operating on its savings right now. The entire non-profit relies heavily on donor support. Their next fundraiser is in September.
In the meantime, they will be making a lot of people with disabilities very happy with what remains of this summer.
“We felt, by looking at the big picture, looking at our mission, looking at the funding, and the funds available, we felt we should make that decision,” said Huttlin.