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Campers enjoy activities amid uncertainty of program

Nearly 100 special campers descended on Camp Kenan on Monday morning, ready to swim in the pool, shoot a bow and arrow, and enjoy a campfire beside sparkling Lake Ontario.

Some had attended "Camp Happiness" at Camp Kenan in the prior three years it has existed, and some were here for the first time, but all were participating in Niagara County's only day camp for individuals with developmental disabilities.

The camp is the result of a concerted effort on the part of Opportunities Unlimited of Niagara, the Lockport Family YMCA (which operates Camp Kenan) and Lockport Elks Lodge 41. This one-week, traditional day camp offers people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities who participate in Opportunities Unlimited the chance to enjoy one of summer's special perks -- camp.

"Their eyes are opened to something new and it's wonderful to see," said John Zieziula, an Elks Lodge member who serves as program manager for Camp Happiness.

Zieziula and fellow Elk Fred Kanehl helped obtain an initial $10,000 grant from the Elks National Foundation to begin the camp four years ago, and the group has been able to secure $10,000 in each subsequent year.

But the group will not be eligible for this grant in 2012 and is desperately looking for other ways to keep the camp in operation.

"We figure it costs about $60,000 each year to run this one-week camp, but the Elks, Opportunities Unlimited and the YMCA have each contributed in-kind services to bring the cost down to $15,000 a year," Zieziula said. "There is no cost to the campers."

A total of 150 Opportunities Unlimited campers, ages 10 to 60, will experience Camp Happiness throughout the week, averaging about 100 per day. Some campers come every day -- others just a couple of days, depending on their desires.

"When we found out in 2007 that we could get this grant money, I asked, 'Where is there a need?' " recalled Zieziula. "I saw that there were no camps for people with disabilities in Niagara County. They were being forgotten about."

Zieziula and Kanehl turned to Opportunities Unlimited and the Lockport Family YMCA, and Camp Happiness was born.

"Working together with the Elks and the YMCA, you can see what happens when we share services," said Connie Brown, executive director of Opportunities Unlimited. "This is a wonderful experience for our day program participants and we're very, very appreciative to the Elks for thinking of us. But we won't be able to do this again if we don't have the money. Maybe there are other organizations interested in helping out with Camp Happiness by partnering with the Elks."

"The campers go canoing, they go fishing, they can play putt-putt -- and a select group [of about 15 from the youth recreation program] even gets to stay over on Thursday night," Zieziula said. "There are so many things for them to do. Everybody wants to keep this going."

"We want everyone to have a good time," said Luke Kantor, Camp Kenan's new director. "We fill a niche here and I wish we could do this for two weeks, or have even longer days. Maybe we can do this somewhere down the road, as long as we can accommodate everyone and everyone has an awesome time."

Kantor said he has already implemented some new ideas for Camp Kenan, which will be available to Camp Happiness participants, including six new paddleboats, a new disc-golf course and a new, nine-hole miniature golf course.

Nearly 100 day-campers arrived by bus by 9:30 a.m. Monday to partake in a wide variety of activities on this 52-acre gem on the shores of Lake Ontario, boarding the buses for home by 1:30 p.m.

In addition, nearly 100 helpers, drawn from Opportunities Unlimited and Camp Kenan staffs and the Lockport Elks, are on hand this week to assist wherever needed.

The YMCA opens Camp Kenan one week early to accommodate Camp Happiness. The YMCA staff has been busy preparing Camp Kenan for its long-standing day camp, beginning next week, and residence camp, starting July 3.

"We're talking about trying to have another overnight in the fall for Camp Happiness, so people have a chance to come back, because they really connect with the staff and the volunteers," Kantor said. "We're trying to grow Camp Happiness because we can handle up to 200 people if we have the volunteers, [and finances] and that's pretty awesome."

For more information about Camp Happiness, contact Opportunities Unlimited at 504-2617, Ext. 230, and to make a donation to Camp Happiness, e-mail lkptelks@verizon.net.

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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