Camp Stand By Me Builds Hope and Health


Colleen Slater

Camp Stand By Me is a place where campers with a variety of disabilities are told, “You can!” and then given the support to succeed. Campers ride horses, go for boat rides, practice archery and much more.

The camp on Vaughn Bay, formerly Camp Easter Seals West, was a gift of Mildred McDermott of Seattle, sister of Dorothy Kellogg, who with her husband purchased 17 acres as a weekend and retirement home where she could raise horses and various pets.

Kellogg, who suffered infantile paralysis in her childhood, did not have the word “impossible” in her vocabulary. She spent some of her teen summers at a friend’s farm, riding and working with horses and other animals. Crutches and heavy steel braces challenged her abilities, but she accomplished what she set out to do, becoming a successful businesswoman in Tacoma. She loved riding horses, as it gave her a freedom not available by walking.

The Easter Seals Society acquired the property in 1972 and opened the first camp in 1975. Campers and staff stayed in tents. Horses and a swimming pool were added in 1978, after the society purchased additional acreage.

“About half of the campers each year are returnees,” Director Joshua Mayer said, “and perhaps a dozen have been coming for 41 years.”

The original camp was for ages 9 to 17, but the age ranges now are 7 to 21, 15 to 35, and 21 and up. Nine groups rotate through the summer season, with a week off for staff before the final session. Campers arrive Sunday and depart Friday.

Their daily schedule varies with the day’s main activity: archery, horses, visiting the nature-learning center, swimming, boating, and doing arts and crafts. Archery is set up so any camper can participate, pontoon canoes and the wheelchair accessible float boat, Neva DII, are available for tours around the bay. Wednesday night dances are a popular event.

Mayer is serving his fifth year and would love to carry on for many more. He volunteered at Camp Easter Seals East in Idaho as a camp counselor for 15 years, then spent four years working in special education in the Seattle-Tacoma area.

At 67 acres, including nine undeveloped, Mayer hopes to expand and restore the facilities in the next couple of years. Some buildings need replacing or remodeling for different uses.

Thirty counselors work with up to 45 campers at a time. The counselors this summer came from many places, including 13 from England, eight from Ireland, and one each from Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Columbia and Hungary. Most are students with a career goal of working with the disabled in some manner and spend their summers learning in camps like Stand By Me.

The fulltime staff includes administrator Barbara Lewis, facility manager Dave Hennesey, chef Dorn Webster and assistant director Kayla Estes.

The camp season staff includes Maria Ishikawa from Tacoma, who is in her first year as Activities Coordinator. Holly Gelder from Barnsley, Yorkshire, England, is in her second year as camper support specialist. She hopes to find a position teaching in special education schools near her home.

When asked what they liked best about their positions in this camp, Gelder said, “Being able to help people. It’s my calling in life.”

“Seeing the joy,” Ishikawa said.

Annual fundraisers help with the cost of operating the camp, but they depend on donations for 40 percent of their financial needs. There are some scholarships available for campers. Because there are so many applicants, they may only apply for one session per summer.