Most kids love summer camp — once they get over their fears of being away from home, living in unfamiliar surroundings and surmounting shyness to meet kids they don’t know.
Now imagine that you’re a 13-year-old in a wheelchair trying to navigate a landscape that is definitely not disabled-friendly, sleeping out in the open and answering to counselors who take no excuses.
Does this sound like a little too much tough love?
Not by Steve Wampler’s standards.
The 40-year-old Coronado resident, born with severe cerebral palsy, says this is the kind of environment that teaches kids with disabilities that they can conquer the world — if they really want to. And he should know. From ages 9 to 17, Wampler spent summers at a remote camp in the Sierras, learning to deal with the wilderness from a wheelchair.
“It was a life-changing experience,” said the father of two, UC Davis graduate and former businessman, “because living outside in a very remote area and getting an environmental education and going through mental and physical challenges makes you realize you can do anything you want in life.”
That’s why Wampler wants to give other kids with disabilities a similar experience. To do so, he founded Wampler Kids, a nonprofit organization that raises money to provide camp adventures for youth with physical challenges such as muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injuries and cerebral palsy.
“Beyond our family, Steve’s great passion is sending kids on adventures that he knows firsthand will carry them through life,” said Wampler’s wife, Elizabeth, a former Vista resident and volunteer. “He loves the rough-terrain environment, as he believes that this tough environment will push the kids beyond their limits and challenge them in a way not possible every day.”
The camp site sits at about 6,600 feet in the High Sierras on Hawley Lake in Sierra County.
“It’s an hour-and-a-half by four-wheel drive to get in,” Wampler explained. “Basically, Jeep clubs from all over Northern California drive the participants in, drop them off and come back a week later. The kids sleep outside in sleeping bags under the stars. We do have showers and toilets and a small kitchen, but everything is outdoors for a week.”
Wampler, Elizabeth and their two children, Charlotte, 10, and Joseph, 8, join in to help and have fun. The family spends the week before the two sessions and the week after doing the preparation and cleanup.
“The kids love it big time,” their father said. “They can’t get enough of it.”
This year, Wampler Kids is looking for up to five participants from San Diego County.
“We have money set aside specifically for San Diego kids,” he said.
These, along with campers from other areas of California, will spend their days rock climbing, cycling, fishing, swimming, boating, creating arts and crafts, taking nature walks and learning about the environment. It’s all possible because of the one-to-one counselor-to-camper ratio, and each session takes about 16 kids.
“We have a really unique relationship with the Sacramento Department of Recreation, which supplies my program director and staff,” Wampler explained. “The staff is very professional and is trained with disabled kids throughout the year. And we have medical staff around the clock.”
The Wampler Kids camp, unlike the one he attended 30 years ago, is for physically disabled youth who are not mentally challenged.
“We want participants to get the most out of this situation,” Wampler said.
For more, call (619) 957-4285, or visit www.wamplerkids.org. Don’t miss the video at http://www.wamplerkids. org/video.html. Wampler hopes to get a million hits, and in doing so, attract donations large and small.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.