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U.P. summer camp helps disabled children meet their goals

Bay Cliff Health Camp is more than just a summer camp for disabled children; it inspires these children to work toward realistic goals and allows them to be surrounded by other children who accept them for who they are. Lucy Hough learns more about how Bay Cliff helps these children become more independent.
Bay Cliff Health Camp changes people: the campers, counselors and even people who visit for a day. But change over the course of the summer is what Bay Cliff is all about. The core program at Bay Cliff lasts seven weeks and is a therapeutic camp for children with disabilities. Children come to the camp and set realistic goals with the help of the therapeutic staff: to improve speech, walk better, feed themselves, perform their own personal care and more.

"I've learned something over the years: Where you set the bar of expectation for children is generally where they will be. If you set the bar low, then expect lower results. We set the bar very high. We set it high for the campers, but we set it realistically, achievable. Kids respond to that, and they're inspired by each other," says Tim Bennett, director of Bay Cliff.

And though helping these children is the priority of Bay Cliff, the environment is just like any other summer camp where the kids can enjoy recreational activities like crafts, swimming and nature experiences. Every night there is an activity, like talent shows, scavenger hunts or performances by outside groups.

Teenage campers have jobs at camp, as well. They learn job skills by interviewing and preparing for work, and then each camper has a task that is specific to his or her capabilities. One teenager's job was to turn the lights on and off at camp using a tool specifically constructed so he could lift it above his wheelchair.

"Kids with disabilities are so often left on the sidelines, and here at Bay Cliff, they're in the game," Bennett says. "We help them develop not just skills but the ability to see themselves as a person with potential. Our kids at camp learn that they can do all the things that other kids can do, and that's really critical."

The therapeutic and recreational mix of Bay Cliff attracts people from throughout the country who are interested in working with and learning from the campers as camp counselors. Bay Cliff is one of the only therapeutic camps in the country that cares for children for so many weeks in the summer, and Bennett says he expects a lot from the people who will be working there.

"If a young person is interested in a career in therapy, special education, nursing or medicine, you will learn more about children and these issues and more about yourself in a summer at Bay Cliff than you will in four years at college, for sure," says Bennett. "So our staff comes and they know the expectation coming in: leave all your issues at the gate and give yourself 100 percent to the children. You do that and not only will the lives of the children be changed, but you'll never be the same. Those are wonderful, wonderful experiences for both children and staff."

Bennett's daughters grew up alongside the kids attending Bay Cliff and when they were old enough, became counselors. Today, Molly Bennett, from Marquette, has a son who attended Bay Cliff to help him with his spina bifida, which affects muscle strength and ability to walk.

"Letting someone else care for your child with special needs for a long period of time, the trust that's involved is tremendous. I'm unique in that I know how good of care they'll take of him, I've been there. I know how Bay Cliff operates and how trustworthy it is, but it still stretches your trust a little bit," Molly says. "I think I've developed a different thankfulness for the camp."

Molly says she is thankful for everything Bay Cliff has taught her, especially about sacrificing for other people and seeing people for their true potential instead of their limitations. That's something her father, Tim, believes is an important component to Bay Cliff, and it's something that continues in all of the programs Bay Cliff hosts and participates in.

Some of these other programs are directed to adults with disabilities, children with Down syndrome, and people who have experienced post-polio syndrome, the reoccurrence of polio symptoms years after the initial bout has been stabilized.

"We see the future of Bay Cliff as being this place that partners with the community and becomes a year-round destination for adults and children who have struggles and challenges in life, and a place to learn how to adapt and to overcome those things," says Tim Bennett.

The act of giving is a major part of Bay Cliff. One of the doctors who has volunteered his services since 1969 is Dr. Michael Coyne, a retired physician of physical medicine and rehabilitation. Coyne also just finished a four-year term as president of the board.

"It's a very U.P. thing. It's supported by the people in the U.P., there's no federal money, and it's been running since 1933," Coyne says. "It's the epitome of Yooperism, that's just not found in any other place. I've practiced (medicine) in Arizona and Maryland; it just isn't there. The U.P. is just very unique and very special."

Anyone interested in helping Bay Cliff can consider contributing money to help fund a camper to attend Bay Cliff. Because the camp offers state-of-the-art medical facilities, including full dental service, it costs about $100 a day per camper.

"It costs about $5,000 to fund a child for the summer, which is really a cost-effective investment in the children. For what the children receive, we're really good stewards with our money. Less than 15 percent of our funds go to administration, management and fundraising combined. Over 85 percent goes to the program for the children," Bennett says. "Those people who believe in the future of our kids, we ask them to please be there to help us."

Lucy Hough is an English graduate student at Northern Michigan University.
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