Camp Allen opens 83rd season serving 600 campers with diverse special needs
BEDFORD — Summer camp is a rite of passage for many, and camps are gearing up for a busy season of fun in the sun.
Bedford's Camp Allen kicked off its 82nd season this week and welcomed more than 40 counselors from around the world, including Wales, Spain, Australia, Hungary and Poland.
Camp Allen isn't your average camp for kids and tweens, however. It serves about 600 individuals with special needs each season, from ages 6 to 72, including one camper who has attended each summer for the past 40 years.
The camp brings in counselors from many different countries, and has done so for some time, said Camp Allen Director Mary Constance.
"Our campers love the whole cultural piece," Constance said. "They love being able to connect with them and learn from them."
With campers arriving with an array of disabilities — some with autism, some with cerebral palsy, and some that are uncommunicative — life at Camp Allen isn't without its challenges.
But Assistant Director Stephen Daley of Wales, who has come to the camp for the past four years, said counselors get just as much out of the experience as the campers.
The 26-year-old signed up through Camp Leaders, a placement agency, and indicated on his application that he would be willing to work with special needs campers.
"I said I was up for the challenge," Daley said. "I came here, and it changed my life."
Daley said had no special needs experience when he first came to camp.
"I'll be honest, I was petrified when I started," he said. "But I finally found something I'm proud to be a part of."
Several counselors in a recent interview credited the Camp Allen staff with creating a welcome atmosphere that's created a family of sorts over the years.
"I've been to other camps, and the community here is just unparalleled," said Erin Stevenson, who hails from Glasgow, Scotland. "Everyone makes you feel like part of the family."
For Juan Martin of Spain, meeting new people and making new friends are secondary to his primary reason for being at Camp Allen.
"Here, I feel really happy," he said. "I'm doing something I really like to do, and I feel like I'm making a difference."
Carla Dullard, who is visiting the U.S. for the first time from Australia, described the camp as nothing short of magical, with a staff that has already begun to form bonds.
"I just know that I'm going to have the best summer of my life," she said. "I'll walk away changed for the better."
For many of the counselors, who end up learning as much as they teach, it promises to be a rewarding summer at Camp Allen.
"We learn something every single summer," Daley said. "I've learned that I have more ability than I thought I did."
"I want to hang up my shirt at the end of the season and know that I've made someone happy," said Stevenson. "And I hope to get to do it again next year."