ORANGE PARK – In an idyllic scene of childhood fun, hundreds of kids ran, laughed, played games and shot off homemade rockets.
Many were clad in uniform, kids gathered in mass to have a day of fun outside at a local Scout camp. However, this day was not for the Scouts themselves. Instead, it was for a community of children who rarely, if ever, have this opportunity.
This scene unfolded Oct. 20 at Camp Echockotee in Orange Park, where Learning for Life, a Scouts of America organization that focuses on special needs kids, organized a Special Needs Camporee for youth throughout the metro Jacksonville area. The Camporee drew in almost 200 special needs students and their families and provided kids a place where they could feel safe.
“I think it has an incredibly positive effect on their lives,” said David Gabriel, the youth event chairman for Order of the Arrow, the Scout honor society that helped organize the event. “This experience could be something that they remember for the rest of their lives. If it gets them excited to take a break from their phone and take a break from their TV and go outside and join nature and have fun, that’s why we’re here.”
According to the Episcopal Center for Children, a private nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. that assists children with special needs, getting special needs children outside can be crucial for their health. It can improve their coordination, motor skills and their social skills, as well as build self-esteem.
“With the ever-increasing technological advancements that are coming along, it’s easier for children to just be perfectly content sitting at home with their phone and their screens, totally invested in the palm of their hand,” Gabriel said. “Getting back into nature sort of gives them the opportunity that a lot of children don’t get.”
The Camporee included games, Scouting activities such as arts and crafts, bounce houses, food, and boat rides on Doctors Lake. After the daytime activities, the organization set up camp sites in the woods of Camp Echockotee, with free to use tents, prepared for special needs to spend the night and experience real camping outdoors. The Scouts even prepared a show for them, including skits and songs for the campers.
According to Michelle Thompson, a Learning for Life executive who organized the event, such an event can have a great impact on the Scouts as well.
“It’s touching because you get to see a lot of young men and women who are normally in it to earn badges and help themselves put themselves aside and help come together and make a lot of fun for a lot of kids who don’t normally get a situation where they can just have fun and it’s carefree and it’s not just about each individual Scout,” Thompson said. “Some of them said they don’t really bump into any special needs kids where they are, and they said they’re not really different from how we are, they just learn differently than we do.
“Another thing is that they learn compassion and patience. It gives them an opportunity to give back to the community as a whole. They have to learn to put others first,” Thompson said.
AJ Wooten, 16, of Jacksonville, said this was his fourth year attending the Camporee.
“It’s pretty fun,” Wooten said. “I like the idea of everyone coming out to help the special needs. It encourages them, helps them to keep going and learn more. And it helps them to accept themselves. It’s something to socialize, go outside, have fun.”
According to Wooten’s father, Albert Wooten, the event has changed AJ’s life drastically.
“When he was in school, they would call him stupid and make fun of him and stuff like that, just really give him a hard time,” Albert said. “It wasn’t until he came here that there was that first time he really felt accepted. It was that first time I saw him socially interacting and stuff in a real way. He was just having fun you know he felt accepted. To me, as a parent, that was just amazing. So that set the stage and that’s why we go every year.”
Albert Wooten said there’s no way to measure how much AJ has improved because of the Camporee, but as a parent, he knows the Camporee is a major reason behind it.
“Now he’s a little more comfortable in his skin,” Wooten said. “Now he’s a social butterfly. I mean he’s still got some awkwardness about him of course, but he’s a lot more fluent about his communication and interacting with people. He’s more confident. So, I think that’s the key thing is growing their confidence. Having that moment where you’re just one of the kids, they accept me, they like me, then it lets him know there are other kids out there like him, where I’m not sure he really believed that before.”