Headwaters

The Promise of summer fun

For over 30 years, Camp Promise has been providing a full summer camp experience for people with disabilities.

Summer campers at Camp Promise

 

STORY BY JESSICA SWANSON

C hristian hops out of the car with a broad smile and thick tufts of black hair poking out from his ball cap.

It’s a lovely spring day on the outskirts of Bigfork. Peterson Lake sits low and calm, waiting for docks to be placed and giant inflatable toys to be prepped for campers like Christian to enjoy. He and his mom are here to chat about what makes his favorite place so special.
“My camp!” Christian exuberantly bursts. He’s right. It is his camp.

Christian has Jacobsen syndrome, a rare chromosomal disorder. He is happy, enthusiastic, and ready for adventure, but his disability would normally make summer camp an unattainable dream. Fortunately for him and hundreds of other children and adults with disabilities, there’s Camp Promise.

Gaetan McDuff, affectionately known as “Duffy,” worked at Big Sky Bible Camp in the 1980s. As the father of a daughter with a developmental disability, he saw the need for a summer camp that would be inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities. He brought the idea to the Big Sky leadership, who welcomed it wholeheartedly, creating Camp Promise in 1990 and naming Duffy the camp director, a position he held for 13 years.

Today, Camp Promise offers two weeks of overnight camp and a week of day camp. It welcomes approximately 120 campers each year for the full summer camp experience, everything from the ropes course and archery, to arts and crafts, tubing, and canoeing.

One of Camp Promise’s very first campers was Debbie, a delightful woman who is easygoing, always smiling, and quick to make friends, all the best parts of what her brother, Jim, describes as being “perpetually 12.” Debbie’s family jokes that she holds the “longevity record” at camp, having first participated in Big Sky’s conventional camps as a child, then switching to Camp Promise in its inaugural year. She has attended every summer since, even after her family left the valley in 2005.

Even when she has the opportunity for respite care, Nola worries about her son. But camp is different.
 

Jim says that the annual trek to get Debbie from Columbus, Montana, to Bigfork is more than worth it. “Camp Promise is a great opportunity for my sister to be around people like herself. That’s something we all cherish. That one week of camp, she gets to be fit in.”

Providing the Camp Promise experience is no small feat. Transforming the rustic 1960s facility into an accessible facility involves moving bunks, placing ramps, and accommodating special diets. The camp staff grows exponentially, welcoming volunteers from across the country to provide a one-to-one staff to camper ratio and on-site nurses.

The result is an experience that is wonderful for the campers. And life-changing for the staff.

“I thought I would be the blessing,” says Emmy Ort, who worked alongside her husband Jeff for the 19 years that he was the director of Camp Promise. But instead, she says, the campers “expanded who I am. It wasn’t just me giving, but a mutual building up. It enriches your life in a way that you would never experience otherwise.”

In addition to the summer camps, Camp Promise now facilitates bi-monthly “Friday Night Out” get-togethers in Kalispell, an opportunity for drop-off respite for caregivers. Farther afield, monthly Promise Clubs in Bigfork, Great Falls, and Missoula provide similar programming.

“It’s not just a respite time for our families, but an opportunity to reach out to other people in our communities and be an encouragement,” says Beth Wiegand, the current camp director, explaining that the gatherings include service projects, such as attaching uplifting notes to prepackaged snacks for local schools to give to their students.

Christian asks me where Beth is today; he wants me to know that they are friends. His enthusiasm is infectious, and his long, lanky body towers over his petite adoptive mom, Nola. Christian came to Nola just before his ninth birthday; Camp Promise was the first place he spent the night away from her. Nola went into the week wondering if she’d be called to pick him up early, even after the unexpected delight of discovering that her football-loving foster son had a retired NFL lineman as his counselor. To her surprise, however, Christian thrived. He had a terrific week, even participating in the ropes course despite his fear of stairs. The time away made him braver.

It isn’t easy to find a place where Christian can be truly accepted, loved, and cared for, Nola says. Even when she has the opportunity for respite, she worries. But camp is different.

“It’s not just getting a break and getting away; it’s knowing that he is in the best care,” she explains. “He is not just being babysat. … I don’t have to worry if he is having a good time. I don’t have to worry if he’s irritating someone. He is safe. He has a blast. He loves everybody. It’s a relief off the shoulders. I can actually relax.”

This sentiment is pushing Camp Promise to expand. It is fundraising to build a larger accessible facility that would allow for an additional four weeks of summer camp and three weeks of day camp.

Duffy once dreamed of a day when Camp Promise could run all summer long, just like the conventional camps at Big Sky. That dream is now on the cusp of becoming a reality.

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