Collier County Do The Right Thing regional winner Callie Bennet is a born volunteer.
“This will be my 18th year of going to summer camps, but I am only 17 years old,” says the Lely High School junior.
Bennet’s parents, Rev. Kyle and Dody Bennett, of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, on Marco, spent their summers working at Camp Bratton Green, a camp for physically and mentally handicapped children in Mississippi. When their daughter came along, she became a part of the summer camp tradition, first at Camp Bratton Green and later at Camp Able, which was founded by her father after the family moved to Marco, three years ago.
Camp staffers are not paid, work long hours and perform duties rarely carried out by young adults, including assisting special needs campers with challenging activities like scuba diving and a zip-line rope course, as well as traditional activities such as canoeing, fishing, arts and crafts, music and dancing. The counselors not only have to be capable of handling these rigorous activities with handicapped children ages 9-21, but they also are on duty around the clock.
“We see children with Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism,” says Bennet. “We have one girl who is blind and others who are confined to wheelchairs.”
Bennet has recruited nine other young adults from Lely High School to become counselors, which is not an easy task. Volunteers must give up a week of their summer vacation to work 15-hour days for seven days at the camp in Bradenton, Fla.
Her dedication and desire to provide a memorable camping experience for others who normally would not have the opportunity caught the eye of her teachers and resulted in her nomination for the Do The Right Thing award, sponsored by the Collier County Sheriff’s Office.
“I am very pleased Callie won, due to her hard work and dedication in helping kids with special needs,” says Deputy Joe Rakow, who coordinates the DTRT program in Collier.
“It takes a very special person to do what she has accomplished over the years, working with these kids at the camp.”
Bennet was surprised by the honor.
“I was shocked when I heard I was the overall winner,” she says. “I really had no clue. They came into my marine biology class and surprised me. I didn’t expect to get anything for my work, because I volunteer for the campers.”
This summer, Camp Able will double its enrollment to 35, so Bennet has already started recruiting.
“We need more guy counselors,” she says. “Anyone can go online to campable.org and sign up as a counselor and find out more about Camp Able.”
Counselors work one-on-one with the campers, and sometimes, depending on the activity, there are a couple of counselors per camper.
On April 25, Bennet will be honored with a $2,000 savings bond during a special picnic luncheon at Lakes Regional Park, in Ft. Myers. She will be joined by other overall winners from Fort Myers, Punta Gorda and Cape Coral, along with representatives of the Lee and Collier County Sheriff’s offices.
Bennet says she will use the savings bond for college, where she plans to pursue a degree in interior decorating.
Each summer, Bennet divides her time between the summer camps in Florida and Mississippi. She says she receives as much from the experience as she gives.
“It is a great program,” she explains. “Once you experience a special needs camp, you really get a new outlook on life. I love to see the transformation in my friends who volunteer. It is a great experience and it changes your life! Counselors get just as much out of the camps as the campers.”