BY STEVEN JUPITER
GOSHEN—There’s nothing extraordinary about kids singing about meatballs as they line up for lunch at summer camp. Nor is there anything extraordinary about swimming, fishing, arts & crafts, or kids decorating their bunks.
It’s all the typical summer camp clichés. Until you consider that these activities at Camp Thorpe in Goshen are undertaken by kids with special needs. The camp’s motto is “Let Laughter Enter.” As you walk around the grounds, you hear plenty of it.
Thorpe’s new Executive Director, Alicia “Allie” Jennings, beams with pride as she shows off the bucolic campus in the Green Mountains, not because the facilities are unusual for a summer camp—swimming pool, dining hall, ping pong—but rather because they’re exactly what you’d expect.
The goal of Camp Thorpe is to provide a “normal” summer camp experience for kids whose developmental challenges may limit their social opportunities at home.
“We have days with particular themes, like Harry Potter Day, for example,” Jennings said. “The other day, the theme was Christmas. After one of the activities, I saw one of the campers crying. But she said they were ‘happy tears’ because she was having so much fun. No one is judging her here.”
Ms. Jennings came to Camp Thorpe in February from the San Francisco area, having worked with special-needs kids for years in a variety of settings. This is the first summer since COVID that the camp is back in full swing, and enrollment is at capacity.
“We’ll have around 250 campers this summer,” Jennings said. “We have three two-week sessions and one one-week session. So, we’ll have 60 to 70 kids per session.”
“Our campers are generally between eight and 15 years old in terms of developmental abilities, even though some of them may actually be middle-aged. You have to be at least 12 to attend, but we don’t have an upper age limit. And we group campers by developmental abilities, so no one ends up feeling out of place. They often make friendships here that last for years. They keep in touch and visit each other when camp is over.”
Camp Thorpe was founded in 1927 by Reverend Walter Thorpe to provide children with disabilities a space where they could enjoy the same experiences as non-disabled children. Initially, the camp was all girls and intended primarily for children with physical limitations, such as polio-induced paralysis.
Over the years, however, the camp opened to boys and shifted its focus from physical limitations to developmental challenges.
The summer staff combines local hires and placements from Camp America, a program through which counselors from outside the United States get to spend a summer working at American summer camps. This summer, Thorpe has counselors from Ireland, Colombia, New Zealand, the U.K., and France, for example.
“The staff are the most inspiring people you’d ever want to meet,” said Jennings. “The work here isn’t just a job. It turns to love as they get to know the kids. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”
“But it’s been hard to find local employees,” said Jennings. “We’d love to have a stronger network of local hires. It’s a great summer job for high school kids over 16. We need to connect with the local community and develop those resources. Nobody really knows what the new normal is going to be after COVID, but we hope it will include local staff.”
Even as Thorpe returns to its usual rhythms, COVID is a reality that the camp still must grapple with. “Keeping kids safe is our number one priority,” said Jennings. “We have a highly vulnerable population here. COVID will continue to be a concern for a long time. We take a lot of precautions, and we’ve been fortunate not to have any outbreaks this year.”
Another long-term concern is fundraising. “We have a very strong network of donors and fundraisers, but they tend to be older,” Jennings said. “We need fresh fundraising for the next 10 years and beyond. The cost of a session here is $1,200, which is low on a national scale, and we offer aid to families that can’t afford it. But our expenses are increasing just like everywhere else, and we really want to keep the camp affordable.”
Brandon residents Tim and Mary Shields sent their 26-year-old daughter, Stacy, to Camp Thorpe for two weeks this summer. “It was a better place for her,” said Tim.
“They really made it fun,” added Mary. “There was a lot of individual attention. Stacy immediately said she wants to go for four weeks next year!”
Jennings loves her work and loves her new home, too, saying, “California has become a really difficult place to live. I was looking for a change of scenery. I came out [to Goshen] for my interview in January and fell in love with Vermont.”
“It’s really beautiful work [at Thorpe],” Jennings added. “It’s a joyful space for people that need community. I want people to know we’re actively engaged in creating that community for special-needs people.”