Parents find solace at Camp Jeffrey, a place where developmentally disabled adults can play

Ionut Dinca smiles widely as volunteer Jim Burch places a rattle in his hand. The volunteers at the camp quickly learn what each camper responds to and they try to engage them in those actives on a weekly basis.  Anne Claire Shilton/special to the Daily News

Ionut Dinca smiles widely as volunteer Jim Burch places a rattle in his hand. The volunteers at the camp quickly learn what each camper responds to and they try to engage them in those actives on a weekly basis. Anne Claire Shilton/special to the Daily News

Anne Claire Shilton/Special to the Daily News
Kris Merrill, left, plays ball with the camp’s namesake, Jeffrey Alarid, and her therapy goldendoodle, Brody. Alarid, who has been coming to the camp for seven years, reacts especially well to the dog’s presence, smiling as he throws the ball for him.

Anne Claire Shilton/Special to the Daily News Kris Merrill, left, plays ball with the camp’s namesake, Jeffrey Alarid, and her therapy goldendoodle, Brody. Alarid, who has been coming to the camp for seven years, reacts especially well to the dog’s presence, smiling as he throws the ball for him.

Camp volunteers Bob Brewer, center, and Barbara Burch, right, engage with camper Ionut Dinca, left. Brewer  volunteers at the weekly camp because he likes providing a relief for the camper's caretakers who are often responsible for round-the-clock care of their children. Anne Claire Shilton/special to the Daily News

Camp volunteers Bob Brewer, center, and Barbara Burch, right, engage with camper Ionut Dinca, left. Brewer volunteers at the weekly camp because he likes providing a relief for the camper's caretakers who are often responsible for round-the-clock care of their children. Anne Claire Shilton/special to the Daily News

Anne Claire Shilton/special to the Daily News
Ionut Divica smiles widely as volunteer Jim Burch places a rattle in his hand. The volunteers at the camp quickly learn what each camper responds to, and they try to engage them in those actives on a weekly basis.

Anne Claire Shilton/special to the Daily News Ionut Divica smiles widely as volunteer Jim Burch places a rattle in his hand. The volunteers at the camp quickly learn what each camper responds to, and they try to engage them in those actives on a weekly basis.

People of faith will tell you God provides during times of need. But even secular folks will agree that Camp Jeffrey is pretty incredible.

About seven years ago, Marco Islander Pam Brink’s son Jeffrey Alarid was about to age-out of a school-sponsored program. Although Collier County Public Schools allow developmentally disabled students to stay in the classroom until age 21, there are few programs available for them after that.

Aware of this looming cutoff date, she wondered how she would provide round-the-clock care for her son, who is nonverbal and uses a wheelchair. With a husband who travels frequently for work, Brink knew there would be times where she would be Jeffrey’s only source of stimulation and interaction.

So she wrote a letter to the Marco Eagle, the island’s twice-weekly newspaper, asking for help.

About the same time, the Rev. Kyle Bennett was settling into his new role as rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Marco. He was new to Florida and the church.

Bennett’s passion is, as he calls it, “the ministry of the margins.” With his doctoral thesis on the theology of the disabled, Bennett always has felt the call to lend a hand to those who need just a bit more help.

“I saw her letter and I asked her, ‘How can we help?’” Bennett said, adding that the timing was perfect. Had Brink written her letter just a few weeks earlier, Bennett would have likely missed it.

From Brink’s appeal for help, Camp Jeffrey — a weekly program for developmentally disabled adults — was established. Today, it remains a key resource for the parents of developmentally disabled adults on Macro Island.

Every Tuesday afternoon at 12:45 p.m., four volunteers gather in a church activity room. A big box of crayons, sheets of paper, musical instruments and other toys are placed onto a big round table, and the volunteers wait.

At 12:55 p.m., the first mother drops off her son. She greets the four caretakers, says goodbye to her child, and then rushes out the door. For these parents, this might be their only true free time during the week.

“Sometimes I go and get my hair done, or my nails done,” Brink said of her time away. “Or I do things I can’t really do with Jeffrey, or are hard to do with Jeffrey.”

“This is a real respite for these people,” volunteer Bob Brewer said. “They can go to Lowe’s or the grocery store, or just go out to lunch.”

And while the parents are gone, the participants have a good time without them. The volunteers — Brewer, Jim Goodman, Barbara Burch, Kris Merrill and Merrill’s therapy goldendoodle Brody — work nonstop to engage the campers. They sing, shake maracas, color and take the campers for walks around the shaded church campus.

“We get attached to the campers,” said Goodman, who oversees the program. “If (campers Jeffrey Alarid and Ionut Divica) were to go anywhere, I would keep track of them. Whenever Ionut smiles, we’re tickled pink. It’s the same with Jeffrey. When he smiles, our world just lights up.”

The camp is open to any adult with a developmental disability. Although there isn’t a particular religious contingent of the program and because of the welcoming nature of the camp — and the church — some parents bring their children to St. Mark’s on Sundays.

“If you come on a Sunday morning, you’ll see a special needs kid serving at the altar,” Bennett said. “(Divica’s mother) Alison may say to me, ‘He might blurt out during church.’ To which I say, ‘I don’t care.’ No one cares. It’s a ministry of inclusion.”

Beyond serving a population Bennett has a particular fondness for, Camp Jeffrey fulfills the rector’s goal. Bennett said he believes the best way to ensure his congregation isn’t just a resort congregation is to get members engaged with the church’s programing and the greater community.

“It all boils down to relationships. I can tell you each of the people involved in Camp Jeffrey, their lives are better for it,” he said.

And he said he would love to see the program continue to grow.

Right now, the camp has only three regular attendees, and it’s soon to be down a member — one of the participants is moving. Everyone, from the parents to the volunteers to Bennett, agree that a few more campers would make Camp Jeffrey a better place. More campers mean more interaction — and more friends — for participants.

Bennett said growing the camp has been hard for several reasons. Mainly, however, the biggest barrier to new participants is that parents are nervous about entrusting their developmentally disabled children to strangers.

“We find a lot of parents — I guess because of our culture — very hesitant with their children. They tend to kind of sequester their children. Parents are very concerned that it’s a big, bad world out there,” he said.

But it’s a warm, welcoming world on Tuesday afternoons at Camp Jeffrey. Between the loving dog, the warmhearted volunteers and the campers who just seem to soak all that love in, Tuesdays at St. Mark’s are sacred. For the volunteers, for the campers and — of course — for the parents.

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