Camp Wonder to Offer Special Needs Children Camp Experience This June

Participants in 2022 Camp Wonder. Photo provided by Claire Maxwell.

When Claire Maxwell sees an opportunity to solve a problem she takes it. Maxwell, a member of the Rutherford County School Board and a former special education educational assistant (EA), saw that special needs kids don’t get many opportunities to go to camp, she created one just for them. She calls it Camp Wonder.

“I wanted to create something for special needs kids because they don’t usually get to have camp experiences,” said Maxwell. “Plus, I wanted them to learn things, but not know that they were learning.”

The camp is completely free to the participants, run through the help of Rutherford County Schools, Discovery Center at Murfree Springs, lots of volunteers, and donations mainly from individuals who want to give these kids and young adults a life-changing experience.

“We are able to run the camp for about $3,000,” said Maxwell. “Most of our costs are for tee shirts, activity supplies and a memory book that we give to the kids at the end of the week. We have been lucky to get most meals donated by local restaurants.”

The first year, 2019, there were only ten kids and it was held at Discovery Center all week. After Maxwell was elected to Rutherford County School Board in 2020, and no camp took place that year due to COVID, she knew she had to have a camp in 2021.  Then Director of Schools Bill Spurlock gave her his blessing to move it to Riverdale to be able to accommodate more children and to have more space.

“I had 15 that summer,” said Maxwell. “The kids came from several high schools. The next year I moved it to two locations.”

Summer 2022, the first camp was held in north Rutherford County in June at LaVergne High School, and in July of that year, the second was held at Oakland High School. They had around 15 or 16 at each camp.

This year, due to multiple additions starting at three of Rutherford County’s high schools, there will only be one camp. It will be held at Blackman High School because it is centrally located. Director of Schools James Sullivan, and the rest of the school board, continue to support her vision. Maxwell hopes to have 20 to 25 kids this summer.

“I’m looking to make sure I have around 10 volunteers,” said Maxwell. “After the additions are completed, I hope to expand back to two camps. Still, I am excited to see some familiar faces this [year] and meet new friends.”

The 2023 camp will take place June 12 through 16 from 9:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., but the kids usually start to arrive at 8:30 a.m.

Every day has a theme, and participants get to do hands-on activities, meet special people like police officers and firefighters, and then just have fun. Most of the activities are S.T.E.A.M. related. These include building bridges out of popsicle sticks and paint stirs, learning to program mini robots, crafting kazoos, shooting off rockets, and making volcanoes with vinegar and baking soda.

“I have the kids interact with representatives from the police and fire departments so they learn how to interact with them, and vice versa,” said Maxwell. “If there is an emergency situation, these kids will know how to communicate important information with these individuals. It also allows the police and fire officers to learn how to work with special needs adults.”

After a morning snack, the campers have activity time with representatives from Discovery Center, then after lunch they meet with visitors or just do fun things like pet horses or have a dance party.

Plans for this summer are currently underway. Maxwell needs help finding those 10 volunteers that are over 18 and have a heart for special needs adults. And funding is always tight, so she can always use financial assistance.

“Anyone who wants to donate funds can make their check out to the Discover Center,” said Maxwell. “Just make sure that you write “For Camp Wonder” on the note section of the check.”

Questions can be emailed to Maxwell at [email protected].

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