by Megan Maher, UCP’s Special Events Coordinator
Special Meaning in Life’s Experience. That’s what Camp SMILE stands for, and strives to achieve. Hosted by UCP of Mobile, Camp SMILE is a residential summer camp for individuals with disabilities (ages 5-50) and their siblings. With adapted rules and specialized equipment, campers not only have the chance to participate in physical activities like kayaking, fishing, swimming, boating, and horseback riding; they also meet others whose abilities and life experiences are similar to their own.
Founded in 1972, Camp SMILE has grown exponentially – from originally serving 27 campers for four days in the summer to now serving over 300 campers across four five-day, four-night sessions and two seasonal respite weekends. The camp offers a unique one-to-one camper-to-counselor ratio, which helps campers adjust to life outside their normal routine and helps foster genuine relationships between campers and counselors.
My journey with UCP began as a Camp SMILE counselor in 2004. After spending five full summers at camp, I went to college and based my education off my camp experiences. I bounced from special education to psychology, worked at an autism center and on an autism research project, and fueled the search for my future career based upon the inspiration camp had instilled within me across my high school days. Now the Special Events Coordinator for UCP’s national office in Washington, D.C., I journeyed back to my camp family this summer to rediscover the Camp SMILE spirit, and learn what it truly means to everyone involved.
The Camp SMILE Spirit for Counselors
This was Emily Kendall’s 15th summer as a camper, but her counselor’s first. “We’re friends at school,” her counselor Emma Erwin explained. The pair are students at Baker High School, where Emily would frequently talk to Emma about camp and her summer experiences. “After my grandfather died,” Emma said, “Emily came to me and said: ‘Don’t be sad, because in heaven he’ll get to ride the zipline just like you can at Camp SMILE.’ I knew then I wanted to be a counselor, and waited every year until I was finally 16 and could sign up to volunteer.”
For Mallory Schum, the Camp SMILE spirit is about making her camper have the best week possible. “I like that camp makes us feel equal, like they aren’t the minority.” Schum states the experience is like working for any other summer camp, and then some. “I try to make sure my camper gets the most out of their week, but feel like I might get even more out of it myself.” Her favorite moment? Struggling for hours to get a wheelchair-bound camper up a waterslide, but then getting to see the look on her face when she slid down. Mallory sees the Camp SMILE spirit to be a beautiful thing, stating that: “As long as this place is around, it will continue to give counselors and campers alike a meaningful and life changing summer experience.”
A counselor for six years, Mallory intends to go into the field of nursing and continues to volunteer with UCP of Mobile throughout the year. Over a third of all volunteers follow suit by choosing college majors and future careers that relate back to their summer camp experiences.
The Camp SMILE Spirit for Campers
Waylon Rogers, a camper for virtually his entire life much like Emily, says that camp means “you always have to smile.” Waylon, known for his dance moves and remix to the “Mr. Sun” flagpole song’s chorus, values the friendships that camp has given him. After all, he says, “even when you have to leave, camp is about knowing you can come back next year.” And indeed the campers do come back. As Camp SMILE’s model separates by age, not disability, campers have the opportunity to grow up together and proceed through the different summer sessions as a group.
Marcus Williams (pictured here) has been coming to camp for “a long time” he tells me. For Marcus, camp is family. His favorite part of camp are his friends, a group that bring energy (and maybe a little bit of trouble) to the entire camp and are notorious for having the most rambunctious cabin of the week.
His message to someone who has never come to Camp SMILE before: “You have to come see it for yourself, cause you’re gonna love it.”
The Camp SMILE Spirit for the Community
This summer was Matrisza Alvarez’s 21st year at Camp SMILE. This camp journey has taken her from counselor to staff to UCP of Mobile employee, and now, Camp Director.
For Matrisza, the Camp SMILE spirit embodies more than just the summer camp experience – generating true community and family benefit. “We are the only residential camp in the greater Mobile area for all disabilities. Camp SMILE encompasses everyone – and means just as much to the families as it does to our campers. Through this program and our respite weekends we strive to provide a safe, loving, and fun environment so that parents can get a break themselves and feel confident that their child is being cared for.”
Camp SMILE is also sustained by a strong volunteer force – from teen counselors to dedicated staff who decide to spend their summers to continue building this program. “How many teenagers we have doing great work with us all summer is amazing,” says Alvarez. “Camp is not only a huge service to our campers, but provides a volunteer experience to hundreds of teenagers in the Mobile community each summer.”