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The camp is actually therapeutic for everybody connected with it

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It’s a camp where the ones who are slightly different are the VIPs.

But Camp Able, structured for campers coping with conditions like autism, Down Syndrome, spina bifida, chromosome abnormalities or lack of oxygen at birth, is actually therapeutic for everybody connected with the popular annual project. It runs just short of a week, and is based at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Marco.

“Everybody” means the 55 campers themselves, the 100 or so young counselors, and a couple dozen local church parishioners who dutifully arrive each day to prepare meals for all, and then fastidiously clean up afterward.

Wade Mudinger has been involved with Camp Able since Rev. Kyle Bennett initiated it eight years ago. Over the course of four days, campers head out on all sorts of locally-sponsored excursions that include fishing, cycling, boating, kayaking and the movies. In the afternoons in the church grounds, they play games, participate in arts and crafts classes, and spend hours practicing for a talent show performed on the Saturday evening before their departure.

“The camp started the year I joined the church, and when Father Kyle pulled me in, he didn’t tell me what I would be doing, or what it was about,” Mundinger says. “He just said ‘you need to experience it to understand it.’”

Precisely.

Watching the campers arrive Wednesday last week to hugs, squeals of delight and not just a few tears, it’s clear this is about a special as any four-day camp gets.

Seeing them gliding out, for example, on kayaks at Capri Fish House on the Isles of Capri redefines the words “heart-warming,” and watching the interaction between campers and counselors (mostly drawn from the ranks of local high school students) makes one feel - to be honest - a little left out. You’re a little envious about not being directly involved in the bonding.

But like Mundinger says, the camp enriches everybody – even observers.

Reunited with camper William Wiseman for the third year in a row, counselor Nuria Ferreira is what you might call a happy camper herself.

The tall, blond, blue-eyed Wiseman has Asperger's Syndrome, by definition an autism spectrum disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction as well as repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.

Ferreira says her most strident wish would be to “get inside his head,” as he paces rooms up and down, seemingly assessing their geometry.

On the Saturday evening at the variety concert, the noise inside the church almost raises the roof as the campers welcome the audience and then proceed to perform solo songs, dance acts, karaoke and even a deft nunchaku display by one camper.

An aside: The day before, concert co-coordinator Andrea Feeney lets the campers know they’ll have about 90 seconds up on stage in order to accommodate the more than 50 acts.

“Some want to do three songs, one with a friend, one by themselves,” Feeney says. “One even wanted to do an 8-minute song.”

This required some tactful negotiations, but in the end everybody was happy, Feeney says.

Departure day on Sunday is a mix of emotions, with many promises of linking up again this time next year.

See a photo gallery of Camp Able in the Sun Times on July 23, and visit the camp’s website at www.campable.org.

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