Ava Battelle leans into her camp counselor at the back of a big cafeteria called Miller Hall at Wonderland Camp. Parents, including Ava's mom, are registering their kids for another week there. Ava’s counselor, Sydney Dungan, dangles her arm across the girl’s shoulders.
“You don’t get any other experience like this than to live with someone with disabilities for a whole week, getting really close with them, and then just seeing them as a real person and not just as their disability,” Dungan said later.
Wonderland Camp leaders and counselors have been helping people of all ages and abilities enjoy summer recreational activities for almost 50 years. Ava, who has Down syndrome, was one of about 95 campers who arrived last week at the Rocky Mount, Missouri, campgrounds, near Lake of the Ozarks.
She is also one of many people in the St. Louis region who receive money from the Recreation Council of Greater St. Louis to help offset the cost of leisure activities for people with intellectual and developmental challenges.
Such differences do not define campers at Wonderland Camp.
While talking more outside of Miller Hall at a picnic table, Ava lists the fun activities she has done at camp so far, including arts and crafts, riding on the pontoon boat, and zip lining.
Her mom, Tara Frisella, interjects a bit to clarify what Ava is saying, to which Ava responds in a playfully annoyed way as only a teenager can: “Mom, let me talk.”
“Sorry about that,” Ava said, excusing her mom. She goes on to talk about her experience at camp, including the talent show where she sang a Hannah Montana song with her counselor.
“I really love it here,” she said.
A place to belong
Frisella heard of Wonderland Camp a few years ago, but didn’t think Ava was quite ready for a week away from her in their home in Fenton.
“She’s 13 now,’” Frisella said. “She’s kind of aged out of a lot of camps. But I really think that, even ones no matter the severity of disability they have, I think everybody feels inclusive and it’s a place to belong here.”
Frisella needed financial help sending Ava to camp, though. That’s where money from the council came in. With a voucher to pay for a week of camp, she paid $100 of the full cost.
Camp Board President Jill Wilke said money from donors helps keep costs low, but other funding sources are also helpful.
“We are also very grateful for organizations that help with that payment,” Wilke said. “While $650 is less than most of the other camps, it still can be a lot of money.”
Funding for fun
The Recreation Council of Greater St. Louis is a non-profit that calls itself a “clearinghouse” for leisure activities to help families like Ava and her mom take advantage of programs that might otherwise be out of their reach.
The council gets its money from developmental disabilities boards in St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County. The board in St. Louis County has about $21 million in property tax revenue to fund 36 agencies, including the Recreation Council of Greater St. Louis.
Council Executive Director Susan Fleming said in a statement that the information the non-profit provides, coupled with the funding to enroll people into programs, allows people with disabilities to engage in fun, healthy activities.
That’s exactly what receiving a voucher did for Crestwood resident Lynn LaChance, who was able to enroll her 12-year-old daughter and her 54-year-old sister in community activities that teach them important life skills. LaChance’s daughter, for example, takes sewing classes with people of different abilities in Maplewood. LaChance’s sister takes art classes in Webster Groves.
“Just for two or three hours, she’s just one of the girls,” LaChance said of her sister’s experience in art classes.
Felicia Ruiz-Coon of Ballwin said learning an important skill and being treated like any other kid are important for her adventurous 3-year-old son, Logan.
“He’s got such a great disposition,” Ruiz-Coon said, describing his smile and laugh. “And very, very, very active.”
Logan really likes water. But Ruiz-Coon worried that his fascination could be a safety issue, especially because he is non-verbal. Doctors diagnosed him a form of autism.
Ruiz-Coon had never heard of the Recreation Council of Greater St. Louis. She and her family moved to Ballwin three years ago from California when the Coast Guard transferred her husband to Missouri. It was shortly after her son’s diagnosis that the family learned the council could help them pay for Logan’s one-on-one swim lessons.
Making a splash
Logan usually takes lessons not far from where they live. But on this hot July day, with classes canceled for the week, Ruiz-Coon and her kids are spending the afternoon at Manchester Aquatic Center. Her daughter, several years older than Logan, wades next to him as he splashes in his Spiderman puddle-jumper, an inflatable vest that covers his chest and upper arms.
“Already within a month of him getting these one-on-one swimming lessons, he is swimming so good for a child his age. Not just for an autistic child, but a child his age,” Ruiz-Coon said.
She is proud of how well her son is swimming, and how excited he gets when he has his lessons. She sees the improvements in his abilities from just weeks before, and she credits that to classes and the new community that embraces him and makes him feel like every other kid.
Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.