"Inspiring a barrier-free future" may be the vision for Camp Aldersgate, but for the hundreds of campers with special needs who find life-changing experiences on its campgrounds, that vision is a reality here and now, even if only for a few weeks each year.  

Soirée sat down with CEO Sonya Murphy to reflect and look forward as the nonprofit celebrates its 75th year in Little Rock.

 

Camp Aldersgate marks a big milestone in June and looks a lot different than it did 75 years ago. What are some of the biggest changes since that first year? 

SM: Camp Aldersgate was converted from an old turkey farm to a place for all ethnicities to worship together. Over time, it transformed from a place of worship into a church camp for youth, still focusing on inclusivity. 

One of the biggest changes occurred in the '70s, which is more reflective of the core services Camp Aldersgate provides today. In 1971, a well-respected allergist, Dr. Kelsy Caplinger, approached Camp Aldersgate’s leadership offering to bring his asthma patients, medical care and funds in exchange for lodging, food, activities and access to the 100-acre oasis in west Little Rock. The camp was successful, and leaders from Camp Aldersgate Inc. and Med Camps Inc. joined forces to offer children with many other medical diagnoses and special needs their own camp experience. 

Our guideposts from 1947 remain the same today. We believe in leading with love and acceptance and continue to ascertain the needs in the community with a focus on redefining “special needs” as our community and culture evolve.

 

The camp also looks a lot different than it did when you joined the team in 2016, especially after the last two years. How has COVID impacted the way your team approaches obstacles?

SM: Like many organizations, the pandemic positioned us to make difficult decisions very quickly. The things we did best came to the forefront, and some of our areas to improve were even more glaring, specifically speaking to technology. 

While it was not safe to nor recommended by our medical advisory board to offer camp in person during 2020, we were more determined than ever to provide a positive and inclusive camp experience to our camp families, counselors and volunteers. We invested in technology and platforms that allowed us to deliver interactive, real-time camp activities. This consistent interaction provided new friendships and memories for our campers each week. 

The silver lining was that we learned we could deliver programming to our campers who were too ill or unable to attend in person on a regular basis. We continue to consistently deliver virtual programming to Arkansas Children’s and to our families. COVID was a reset that allowed us to confirm our core services and be very innovative the past two years with great aspirations to expand our program footprint and impact. 

 

 

Adaptability is at the core of just about everything the camp does, from physical modifications to meet the needs of campers to changing the way you think about the term "special needs." What is it like to operate from a mindset of adaptability and, ultimately, a spirit of "why not"? 

SM: It is exhilarating and carries a great deal of accountability that we can quickly launch a new program, endeavor or service coupled with the responsibility of providing excellence and keeping the camper family forefront in all that we do. If you think about the children and their families, they emulate the spirit of "why not" every single day. We are inspired by their resilience, innovation and can-do attitudes. The biggest challenge for us sometimes is what not to pursue as our dreams are aspirational, and our passion for our mission is fierce. 

 

Camp Aldersgate recently launched a new strategic plan focusing on broadening its impact. What was the impetus behind that new strategy, and what do you hope it will mean for campers? 

SM: We planned to launch a strategic plan at the beginning of 2020. When COVID began, we moved into a tactical position with our board, staff and committees to keep our programs, facilities and team relevant and impactful. 

As we moved into 2021, we worked with our board and staff to determine six key strategies to move Camp Aldersgate to the next level of excellence. We interviewed several key partners and stakeholders as Camp Aldersgate traditionally does to ascertain the current and future needs of citizens of our state, particularly children and youth. 

Our plan includes expanding our programmatic and physical footprint in the state, adding additional programs with a focus on the whole family and developing and strengthening new and existing strategic partnerships. 

 

Campers are encouraged to come up with a goal for the week. What's the current goal you have your sights on?

SM: We have rebranded, including a new logo to honor the legacy of our 75th anniversary and reflect on our present and future. We are laser-focused on moving from solely a reputable, accredited camp — including residential, weekend and day programs — to a nonprofit that is part of each camp families’ continuum of care throughout their year and offering a rich and robust portfolio of services to inspire a barrier-free future. 


STYLING
JOSIE BURNETT

HAIR & MAKEUP
LORI WENGER

CLOTHING
DILLARD'S

Learn more about Camp Aldersgate and how you can help further its mission at campaldersgate.net, and follow along for updates on Facebook and Instagram.