Camp Able: Islanders come together to provide memorable experiences

Lance Shearer

Summer camp is a time-honored ritual for many American children, a chance to break away from routine, meet new people and try new activities. Camp Able on Marco Island, held every summer at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, provides that experience for youngsters, and adults, with special needs.

At Camp Able, now in its seventh year at St. Mark’s, the staff and volunteers focus on what the campers can do, preferring the term “differently abled” to “special needs” and using “people first” language, said staffer Alexandra Diaz. And at Camp Able, the things the campers can do is long, fun, and diverse.

More:Education ‘for sail’: Community Sailing Center summer youth classes back after Irma

The 52 campers, in the company of more than twice as many staff members and volunteers, fanned out across Marco Island and Southwest Florida, indulging in a veritable smorgasbord of activities and experiences. Many of the excursions were made possible through the generosity of local businesses and individuals, who shared their resources and facilities with the Camp Able crew.

Campers tried boxing at the Marco Island Boxing Club, rode bicycles through the generosity of Island Bike Shop, went out fishing on the boats of Pro Fish ’n’ Sea and Weis Guys Fishing, and went shelling and beaching through Marco Island Water Sports. They played miniature golf at Marco Golf & Garden, paddle boarded at Capri Fish House, and had the challenge of an “escape room” at Xtreme Escape Game.

Some campers got to dive with Scuba Marco or went swimming at the Marco Island YMCA. They loaded up for a tubing adventure at Walker’s Hideaway Marina, on a boat provided by the Cholka family, or participated in “Glowga” – glow in the dark yoga – courtesy of Revival Yoga and Fitness Studio.

Female campers got makeovers including mani-pedis, hairstyling and makeup at Rick’s Island Salon, which co-owner Lisa Popoff said was just as much fun for her staff as it was for them.

“Just to watch their faces and see them light up was great,” said Popoff. “One girl said, ‘I feel like a famous person.’”

T-shirts for participants were provided by Sea Tow, Sunshine Stitchers, and Marco’s Noontime Rotary Club, which also sponsored the talent show reception. The Marco Island Civitan Club underwrote a pizza party, the Kozo family provided tumbling and dance DJ, and Jean and John Esposito opened their home for biking and pool activities. Campers experienced the thrill of “retail therapy” at the Bargain Basket, skeet shooting at Gulf Coast Clays, and the silver screen at Marco Movies.

Along with St. Mark’s, meal sponsorship came from other island churches including the New Life, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and San Marco Catholic churches, as well as the Marco Island Fire-Rescue Dept. Many of the staffers were high school students from Marco Island Academy and Lely High School.

All in all, the outpouring of community support was a great illustration of the “it takes a village” principle.

When the campers returned from their field trips, their afternoons were also filled with fun, games and activity. Staffers joined with them in cooling off on the water slide, as well as indulging in a water balloon fight that was perilous for anyone hovering nearby with an expensive non-waterproof camera.

They got covered with bubbles in the “foam pit,” shot some hoops, practiced their acts for the Saturday night talent show that traditionally wraps up camp activities, drew pictures or played board games. It’s fair to say no one was bored, and many of the counselors as well as the campers were going to feel a little tired as the session wrapped up.

“This is my favorite week of the year,” said camp director Callie Benvenutti, nee Bennett, whose father, former St. Mark’s pastor Kyle Bennett, originated Camp Able, which now has spread to five different locations across the South. “After a couple of days, you can hardly tell the campers from the staff.”