Editor’s note: Part one of this story surveyed five projects that were awarded funding by ELCA Disability Ministries in 2023, especially an inclusive park being built by Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Seymour, Wis. This second part focuses on the ELCA-affiliated Pine Lake Camp in Waupaca, Wis.
Like Emanuel Lutheran Church, Pine Lake Camp used its $10,000 in grant funding to expand its reach, designing multipronged programs to synergize the camp and young adults with disabilities.
“The bulk of the grant was to launch our Self-Determination Camp Program that focuses on advocacy and skill building for our siblings in Christ with disabilities,” said Robyn Koehler, co-director of Pine Lake. “We want to give them meaningful connections in the community and skills and advocacy for them to be able to meaningfully participate.”
Pine Lake, part of Crossways Camping Ministries, is a year-round site, but “summer camp is our heartbeat,” Koehler said, with 10 weeks of youth camp programming for children in first through 12 grade. Retreats and rentals fill out the calendar, she said.
“Our first Self-Determination Camp was in mid-August, and we had about a dozen participants, ranging in age from 18 to 40, and another dozen staff and volunteers,” Koehler said. “I loved seeing the participants lead and co-lead some of the workshops—it inspired us. Our next pursuit is we are offering a retreat in February for young adults with and without disabilities in an inclusive setting where they participate together and lead together, and we hope we can employ some of these adults in summer 2024.”
One highlight of Self-Determination Camp was a drama workshop led by an accessible, inclusive and sensory-immersive theater company. The session ended with a performance for camp staff and other campers.
“We know that when we remove these barriers that we’ve put up unintentionally, those changes we make improve everyone’s experience.”
“We set up rows of chairs for the theater experience,” Koehler said. “They only practiced for two hours, but the art of live theater came through, the energy and connection. The whole room was glowing.”
In addition to Self-Determination Camp, Pine Lake’s grant money went toward an inclusion advocate, a partnership with a local agency that employs adults with disabilities, and additional training for summer staff.
“We had three different self-advocates—people with disabilities themselves—speak with our staff about working with adults with disabilities: what they wanted us to know, how we could modify our programming for a more inclusive experience,” Koehler said. “We know that when we remove these barriers that we’ve put up unintentionally, those changes we make improve everyone’s experience.”
Pine Lake board member Kim Beloin, who has four adult children with disabilities—and who worked at the camp for three summers as a college student—is thrilled with the new directions enabled by the grant.
“I’ve been pushing for this for a few years,” said Beloin, whose daughters Melinda and Christa attended Self-Determination Camp. “I sent my kids to Pine Lake every summer, and they went through our church to confirmation camp. But when they got to be adults, there was nothing for them. This grant was an opportunity to launch something that brings in this whole new population of adults with disabilities.
“We tend to look at adults with disabilities not as church members but [as] people someone has to serve. But they have interests and gifts to contribute in meaningful ways.”