Alex Madison Roberts, 13, has cerebral palsy, which means she is wheelchair-bound and needs what her family calls a "talker" (a Vantage Light device) to communicate.
Alex also swims, dances, goes scuba diving and canoeing. She's ridden a zip line through the woods (the faster the better is her approach to life, her dad says) and made a bullseye in archery. And so do the other kids at Camp Aldersgate — kids with spina bifida, Down Syndrome, autism, cancer, diabetes. Children on respirators. Children who, while at camp, are children, not diagnoses.
Founded in 1947 by Methodist women, Aldersgate, at 2000 Camp Aldersgate Road off Kanis Road, has offered camps for children with medical conditions since 1971, when Dr. Kelsy Caplinger, a pediatric immunologist, organized the first. Since then, Aldersgate's services have grown to include weeklong camps all summer and respite weekends in the fall and spring to give parents a breather from what can be round-the-clock care for their special needs child.
Aldersgate, says Alex's father, David Roberts, "is this natural oasis nestled in the urban fabric of Little Rock. Most people don't know where it is." They don't know, he said, that "it's amazing."
Roberts, director of planning for Crafton Tull engineers, worked with Aldersgate professionally, working on the facility's master plan, before his personal engagement. Aldersgate staff suggested Roberts and his wife, Diane, bring Alex for a day over a weekend to see how she'd like it. Soon, Alex asked to stay for an entire weekend — Friday night to Sunday morning — so she could do all the things the other kids got to do. When the Robertses pulled up on Sunday morning after her first weekend away, "she was beaming," her father said, and wanted to know when she could go back. She was 9 years old; it was the first weekend to themselves her parents had had in a long time. Now, Alex also attends Aldersgate's weeklong KOTA camps for children, camps for kids with CP, Down's and autism. Campers can bring along a sibling or other family member who does not have a medical diagnosis. There is a waiting list for the KOTA (friend in Quapaw) camps.
The experience changed Alex, Roberts said, giving her self-awareness and self-confidence. Alex, who has a good mind and is an A/B student at Maumelle Middle School, began to see herself not just as a dependent, but as a child, one who got to play with other kids, sleep away from home in a cabin with other girls, giggle with friends. "It took her into her teen years," Roberts said. "She has a very different way about her."
Anna Phillips, 20, a student at the University of Central Arkansas who is a lifeguard and counselor at Camp Aldersgate and one of Alex's caregivers, "fell in love" with the camp when she accompanied a younger cousin with Asperger's there about five years ago. "You get to see these kids that have struggles that are a lot harder than yours and they are smiling with them, and taking it day by day."
Over her time there, Phillips has seen kids change, from not wanting to go to camp to "accepting who they are and encouraging other people to do the same. They encourage one another."
Counselors, many of them physical therapists or students interested in a career in therapy, get an intensive weeklong training before working with campers. There are also volunteers, the majority from local high schools, who also receive training but are always supervised by a counselor. The ratio of counselors and caregivers to campers is mostly one to one. There are 55 seasonal paid staff, 15 full-time employees and more than 180 volunteer counselors.
"Camp has been by no doubt the BIGGEST blessing that I could ever ask for," counselor and caregiver Phillips said. "Camp isn't just a place where we all go. It's a home away from home. My co-workers aren't just people I work with, they are family, and the kids aren't just a random group of kids that roll though week after week. It's a family."
Aldersgate has "a beautiful partnership with Arkansas Children's Hospital," development director Kerri Daniels said. "The majority of our nurses come from Children's Hospital. They take a week's vacation and come volunteer, and in turn Children's will reimburse them their vacation time. They are one of our biggest advocates." There are typically two nurses on staff for the summer camps.
Daniels was thrilled that this summer, a child on a respirator who has been coming to summer camp decided to brave the zip line. "Camp is a happy place. Where everyone is the same and the focus is the diagnosis. That's why we live by."
Camp Aldersgate recently benefited from the philanthropy of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, which has awarded the camp $1 million to build a 6,000-square-foot activity center. But Aldersgate still needs operating dollars, scholarship support and in-kind contributions.
"We rely heavily on in-kind donations," development director Kerri Daniels said, "whether that's arts and crafts supplies or maintenance support — rakes and water houses and lightbulbs." The camp has 30 buildings to maintain, "and it takes a lot of manpower," she said. You can find a list of needs on the camp's website, campaldersgate.net.
Cash contributions help pay for scholarships for campers who can't afford the $1,000-a-week camp fee. "We don't turn anyone away for inability to pay," Daniels said.
You can support Aldersgate right now by taking part in its Petit Jean fundraiser: If you order smoked hams and turkeys and food gift boxes from Petit Jean Smoked Meats, a portion of the price goes to the camp. Order forms, and more information about Aldersgate, are available at the camp's website.
The camp also holds an annual fish fry fundraiser each fall.