It's a crystal-clear Arkansas summer day and Little Rock's Camp Aldersgate is alive with activity. Out on the lake, adolescent campers churn the water with canoe paddles, squealing with delight and exertion.
A little further up, another group is trying their luck at the catch-and-release fishing pier, their silvery lines glistening in the late morning light. Back up along a trail, preschool tykes in bright matching T-shirts march like ducklings behind their counselors, soaking in the pine and sun and sky.
"How's everybody today?" says Sonya Murphy, chief executive officer, to a crowd of campers. "Are you having fun?"
The tableau is so serene you don't immediately see the tube here or notice the monitor there. Your eye isn't automatically drawn to a shuffling gait or assistive device, so fixed are you on the joy and wonder in the campers' faces. Which is, anyone here will tell you, exactly the point.
"When campers are out here, they've got their guard down, they're playing games. They're doing normal camp-type activities," says Zach Steadman, attorney with Mitchell Williams who also serves on Camp Aldersgate's board.
"Some of the activities have been modified for them, but they don't care. They're just happy kids at that point and they forget about what's going on with them."
There's no logical reason why Camp Aldersgate is here, on this spot. Nearby, apartment complexes, retail strip malls and hulking hospitals have all grown up, laying siege to this 100-acre secret forest. Yet out among the pines and hardwood trees, all is silent except for the laughter of children, thousands of them over a typical calendar year, all seeking the rare, coveted chance to both be themselves and be included.
"It's really special because we're on a camp that's essentially in the middle of a metropolitan area, but once you get out there, you'd think you're out in the middle of the woods somewhere," says Steadman. "They get to do things like sitting in a canoe or holding a fishing pole, things that almost seem like, especially in Arkansas, fundamental rights."
Growing On Trees
These woods have echoed such joyful sounds since 1947 when the campground was established by United Methodist Women on an old turkey farm six miles outside the city limits. From the start, Camp Aldersgate's was a progressive-minded mission, specifically, to provide a place where people of different races and faiths could mingle peacefully.
Throughout its 71-year history, the organization has never backed down from that calling. It hosted some of the first interracial summer camps at a time when such notions bordered on scandalous, as well as religious groups and programs for people battling addiction. But the true destiny of the camp as a haven for children and youth facing a variety of health issues came along in 1971.
"A local physician came to us and said, 'I have 12 kids who can’t go to camp anywhere else because their asthma was not well-controlled,'" says Ali Miller Berry, director of programs. "He said, ‘If I stay on-site, can they come to summer camp and I’ll provide medical care?’ That’s really where our mission took off."
Today, Camp Aldersgate hosts day programs for seniors and camps for children ages 6 to 18 with special needs or similar medical diagnoses including bleeding disorders, kidney disease and cancer.
"There are some kids [at camp] with some very serious conditions," says Steadman. "They're not given the opportunity on a normal basis to get exposed to the outdoors or to nature and do the simple things that we all take for granted."
In addition to the weeklong summer camps, there are also weekend camps held once per month, again, tailored to children sharing similar health circumstances. Another summer camp, Camp Kota, includes children with and without special health needs.
"I call that week Running and Hugging Week," Murphy says with a smile. "Especially children with some developmental diagnoses, you'll be visiting them and all of a sudden you find yourself in a vise hug and then they shoot off around camp. And they are fast."
A Working Vacation
For many kids, Camp Aldersgate is a highly-anticipated summer tradition. Campers are encouraged to come up with a goal for the week, something to achieve or conquer. Cabin interiors are covered with self-affirming messages and the screened-in back decks are central to campers' bonding, especially among newcomers for whom Camp Aldersgate is their first opportunity to get out on the water, explore a forest trail or even meet someone with the same life circumstance as their own.
"Many of our counselors say [the back deck] is where the magic happens," Murphy says. "This is where one camper says to another 'Hey, how do you handle your insulin pump before you play soccer?' Lots of the quiet visiting time happens out there."
The work is demanding, both physically and emotionally. Murphy's in her second year here, and although she's a veteran of the nonprofit world, nothing in her background prepared her for last summer's camps.
"Every week is different, and yet it’s the same," she says. "It's the same in that they're just precious kids wanting to have a good time and make new friendships. They're different in that every diagnosis has its own nuances.
"For example, the first week I learned with muscular dystrophy camp not to wear open-toe shoes because middle school boys with tricked-out wheelchairs will run over your toes."
Operationally, Camp Aldersgate employs an incredibly complex balancing act of logistics, diet restrictions and medication schedules sharpened against the many wild cards that youth and Mother Nature can play. Medical personnel are always on-site and staffers are trained to provide every manner of support to campers. Employees and volunteers are also provided the resources to find a middling path in the emotional bell curve that rises and falls here daily, an imperative in this place of breathtaking joys and devastating realities.
"I remember in particular one of the first campers I met was also one of the first campers to pass away," Murphy says. "Ali said to me, 'I hope James can come back next year.' And I said I'm sure he will, he loves it here. She said, 'No, I hope he's still with us.' That was the thing I was least prepared for.
"My prayers changed last year. On any given night we have 100 souls on campus. I began to pray like a mama bear."
The financial facts of life are also here, just outside the glow of the smiling faces and good vibes. Grants and donations make up the bulk of Camp Aldersgate's $1.2 million budget. Some families pay a fee for their child to attend camp while others receive scholarships, but no one is turned away due to an inability to pay.
Additional contributions come from individuals, foundations and companies such as Mitchell Williams law firm, which adopted the camp as one of its 2018 Take Time to Give philanthropic projects.
"I have two sons ages 6 and 4," Steadman says. "The first time I toured out there, I thought, if something happened to my sons and there was a way to help give them this kind of opportunity, then I wanted to be involved."
In addition to a financial contribution, Mitchell Williams employees spent time sprucing up cabins, writing hundreds of letters to kids at camp and other tasks. The experience has left its mark in more ways than one.
"I've had a number of our folks volunteer out there who came back and said, 'I didn’t know that was out there, I didn’t know that there was this opportunity for kids, I didn’t know this was available in Little Rock,'" Steadman says.
"I think it's really opened eyes to say, 'Hey, we know this is here now, what else can we do.' And that's great. A number of people, even after Take Time to Give was over, wanted to stay involved with Camp Aldersgate."
This innate ability of the organization to inspire might explain some of the more audacious ideas that have popped up out here over the years. How else do you explain a climbing wall or ropes course or zipline or treehouses accessible to even the most medically fragile campers, except by a relentless, uncompromising ethos that justifiably screams "Why not?"
"I think we're only tapping into the possibilities of what we can do," Steadman says. "Every year the staff out there is coming up with new ideas."
Most recent among these innovations are camps built around societal issues rather than campers' health circumstances. Camp Hope, co-sponsored by Women and Children First shelter in Little Rock, hosts children exposed to domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. Camp Conquer trains teens to identify and intervene when a peer is struggling with thoughts of suicide. Both are new this year and represent the way of the future for Camp Aldersgate.
"I think we have to pay attention and we have to see where the needs are. And we have to continue to define 'special needs,'" Murphy says. "I think when some people say 'special needs' they automatically think of a physical or mental diagnosis. That's not where I see us going.
"There's the opioid addiction, there's children grappling with gender identification, there's abuse. There are so many things that children face that we want to help them with to become thriving citizens and be well and be whole. We just have to pay attention."