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Niagara County Camp Happiness brings joy to those who need it most

BARKER – Day-campers of all ages will gather this week at the YMCA’s Camp Kenan to create crafts, play kickball, sing songs around a campfire and even paddleboat on Lake Ontario – all typical summer camp activities.

But what is atypical about this scene – and what makes it particularly poignant – is that this one-week camp is strictly for Niagara County residents age 12 and older with developmental disabilities.

A total of 150 campers from across the county will be bused to Niagara County Camp Happiness from Monday through Friday, greeted by enthusiastic volunteers and professionals, in a nearly one-on-one ratio.

Some will take up archery for the first time or play basketball, while others will learn how to plant flowers in pots or have their faces painted. Programs scheduled this year also include: bell-ringing provided by the Lutheran Service Society, led by Julia Basham; horse-drawn wagon rides; and Olympic Games-inspired activities.

The camp was created nine years ago through a grant procured by the Lockport Elks Lodge, and it operates through the cooperation of the Lockport YMCA, Camp Kenan, Opportunities Unlimited, Empower (formerly Niagara County Cerebral Palsy) and Twin Cities Elk Lodge.

Mike Landers, owner of Howell Motors Ford in Lockport, is a Lockport Elk and has a son, Tommy, 24, who attends the camp.

“My son has a great time at camp and does things there that I never in a million years would think he would do,” Landers said. “He’s autistic and legally blind, and I have video of my son climbing a rock wall! The campers –despite their disabilities, but with the help of volunteers – really become ‘whole’ at camp. They play kickball and volleyball, for example – even in wheelchairs – and swim. It’s really something to see.

“I’m an Elk and I’m proud of this program,” he added. “It has a special place in my heart. Initially, the Elks got a grant to start it but they don’t always get that grant money and it wasn’t enough to cover it all.

“We need help to keep this going,” Landers added. “People look forward to this camp every year and we can’t let them down.”

Landers will host a pig roast to benefit the camp from 3 to 7 p.m. on Aug. 20 at the Lockport Elks Lodge, 6791 N. Canal Road, Lockport, with basket raffles, a 50/50 split club and music.

Tickets are $15 and will be sold through the Lockport Elks, Twin City Elks, Howell Motors, Opportunities Unlimited and Camp Happiness volunteers. Anyone interested in donating raffle basket items should call Judy at 795-3807.

Organizers thought this camp might run for two to four years when they started it, but are grateful it is now entering its ninth year, noted Lockport Elk Fred Kanehl, Camp Happiness director. He credited fellow Elk John Zieziula as the one who “set the wheels in motion” for the camp.

Now, Kanehl said, organizers raise funds year-round in the hopes that the camp will continue to operate indefinitely.

Kanehl noted that Camp Happiness costs more than $40,000 to operate for just this one week. Campers pay only $25, and organizers rely on grants, donations and fundraisers held by Elks lodges year-round.

It also relies heavily on its volunteers.

“You don’t have to be an Elk to volunteer, and we provide volunteer training,” Kanehl said. “Many of our volunteers have a relative or someone close to them who lives with a disability. Some of our volunteers have been with us since Day One and some take a week’s vacation to volunteer. They come in and get attached. It’s a fun time.”

To learn more about the program or registering as a camper for next year (it’s filled up this year), visit: camphappiness.org.

To learn more about volunteering for next year, contact Kanehl at 434-9296.