In 1986, Martha Wiley began a camp called Extra Special People (ESP) for people of all abilities including those challenged by cerebral palsy, spina bifida, Down syndrome, Asperger’s, autism, Angelman syndrome, and behavior disorders to name a few. The intention was to provide a high-quality experience at a low cost. In addition to donors and volunteers, ESP has partnered with University of Georgia’s College of Environmental Design and Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture for innovative design solutions to provide every camper the best experience possible. Moreover, committed team leaders are engaged through AmeriCorps, the domestic version of the Peace Corps, and ESP is an official AmeriCorps State Program site for the state of Georgia.
Today, the 70-acre camp continues to thrive in Watkinsville and is enjoyed by 300 families representing 26 counties. Nine of the campers are Morgan County residents, one of whom is Sydney Castillo, 25, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, is mentally delayed and nonverbal.
“My daughter Sydney started going to ESP in 2015,” Pam Castillo shared. “She aged out of high school that year, and I knew I had to get her into something. She was very happy in school. It seemed to suit all of her needs, so I didn’t really think of signing her up until she aged out of high school. Then I was like, ‘Wow, I should have done this earlier. They are so great. I should have done this when we moved here.’
“Sydney is pretty severely disabled and can’t always be accommodated everywhere, but they accommodate all disabilities. I had looked online for camps before, and it seemed like all of the camps I found for kids with disabilities had stipulations like [the participants] had to be toilet-trained or be able to verbally tell you when they had to go to the bathroom. There were just all these stipulations that really left Sydney out. It seemed like there was nothing that would accommodate her.”
Pam heard about ESP prior to moving to the Rutledge area through a friend who lives in Walton County. The camp advertises that no person with a disability is turned away. A variety of camping experiences are offered for children as young as four as well as adults. Understanding that a child with a disability can cost up to 10 times the amount it costs to raise a child without a disability, ESP only charges 25 percent of the actual cost to attend their programs. These include four weeks of day camp, two one-week camps with field trips, and two one-week overnight camps; field trip and overnight camps are separated by age for those under 18 and 18 and over. Typical summer camp activities like games, bowling, swimming, and crafts are just some features of ESP’s day camp.
“It’s a big rowdy time, pretty lively,” Pam elucidated. “They [also] have a prom. Sydney goes to that and just loves it. She gets to dress up, get her picture taken, and everybody’s dancing and listening to music.
“It’s great! We’ve lived in other places, and I’ve never seen anything like ESP before. It’s just amazing. You know that [the staff and volunteers] want to be with your kid. That’s what makes such a big difference. They want to be there and spend time with your child, and they love them. It’s nice to be able to feel like you can drop your child or family member off and there are people who will love and accept them just the way they are. It’s a really happy place.”
Sydney participates in two weeks of day camp and one week of overnight camping specifically for her age group. Each week she is paired up with one of the camp volunteers – usually a university student – who is her designated buddy.
“She loves ESP; it’s like her happiest time of the year when she gets to go. She is pretty severely disabled and is nonverbal, but she knows when she’s at ESP. She always gets this big smile or she’ll start laughing. Usually when you drop them off for day camp in the morning, [the staff and volunteers are] playing music and all the counselors are out there dancing around and when the participants get there, they call out their names. She just loves it because it’s so rowdy, she gets attention, and people know her. So, she’s very happy at camp.”
For Sydney, who requires complete care, the inclusion and opportunities that ESP provides allows a change of pace from the rest of the year for herself and her mother.
“The week of overnight camp is the only time out of the whole year that Sydney gets to actually spend a night away from home. I think it’s so good for her because she’s got other people taking care of her and she gets to kind of have a normal experience that someone her age would have. It’s really nice for me, too, because I have some time where I’m not having to be her caregiver – not that I don’t love doing that, but it’s nice to have a break. I’m sure she needs a break from me sometimes, too.”
ESP offers other programs during the year for family support and afterschool activities. This includes their 360 after school enrichment program that operates during school semesters from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. To find out more about everything ESP does, visit their website: extraspecialpeople.com.
Pam encourages everyone with an extra special person in their life to explore the opportunities provided by ESP: “Check it out! It’s the best thing that I’ve ever come across for Sydney. She loved school, and school was good for her, because she’s very social and likes to be around other people. But ESP is over-the-top wonderful! I would tell anybody to check it out. It’s totally worth it, even if you have to make a drive. I bet everybody who goes there loves it. I can’t imagine a child not loving that.”