Volunteerism hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels in the U.S. the way charitable giving has this year, according to a Gallup Poll.
But by the looks of one summer camp program in the Texas Hill Country, the selfless desire to help others is at least strong and evenly reciprocal.
More than 650 people — teens, young adults and medical professionals — have spent their time this summer at a program operated by the nonprofit Children’s Association for Maximum Potential (CAMP) in Center Point, located on the Guadalupe River about 10 miles southeast of Kerrville.
For a week or more, the volunteers paddled canoes, worked on crafts, led horseback rides, nocked arrows and anything else they could to help people from ages 5 to 50 have a typical summer camp experience despite physical and cognitive disabilities and serious medical conditions.
On a recent “wacky-tacky” theme day at camp, Gia Barrera took a break poolside with one camper as dozens of others splashed, floated and leaped into the cool waters of the camp’s aquatic center.
The 16-year-old who works and volunteers for the annual summertime program said the best part of being at camp is seeing the participants smile. On a Wednesday morning, she was already dreading the worst part: Friday.
“I cry every week at the end of it,” she said.
Founded in 1979 by a group of Air Force pediatricians hoping to make a young patient’s dream come true, Camp CAMP is an annual tradition for thousands of families whose children look forward to the getaway, to play and make friends, and for their parents and caregivers who also enjoy the respite.
In 1989, the organization purchased a 55-acre camp situated along the Guadalupe River that had been vacated a decade before. Over the years, CAMP leaders raised millions of dollars to rebuild cabins, expand the facilities and make the entire camp accessible and comfortable.
By the start of the 2000s, the nonprofit was serving about 1,000 people annually through its summer camp program as well as family weekend retreats, parent’s night out and teen events during the school year. But at $2.4 million in operations costs, camp is a major part of the organization’s annual budget.
Most years, it receives about 1,200 applications for summer camp volunteering and has space to train 550 for the one-on-one role of camper buddy. As with many nonprofits, the number of people wanting to volunteer has dropped by about half since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to CAMP CEO Susan Osborne.
Students from area nursing schools help make up the volunteer force, and the camp dispenses 25,000 doses of medicine over the eight weeks of camp.
Daniel Ross, who uses a wheelchair to get around, was 5 years old when he first went to Camp CAMP. He’s 28 now and has attended every year except for when the program was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic.
When he’s not in the arts and crafts cabin, he likes to enjoy the breeze on a cabin porch and looks forward to karaoke nights.
Camp staffers pair each camper with a volunteer buddy who has undergone a week of training. Aryan Kapoor stayed by Ross’ side all week as he participated in camp activities.
“He’s awesome,” the camper said of Kapoor. “I’ve never seen somebody who cares for people with special needs [like he does]. I got lucky.”
“I got pretty lucky, too,” Kapoor said to Ross. A University of Incarnate Word student planning to attend medical school, Kapoor is in his fourth year of volunteering at the camp. He said the experience “never feels like a chore,” but has taught him a lot about patience.
“We have a saying that ‘camp is for the camper,’” said Osborne. “What do we need to be to make this the best experience for them?”
That starts with the volunteers and a weeklong training session designed to teach not just camp policies, caregiving skills and child development but also about inclusion and how to treat others with kindness and dignity.
The volunteers, some as young as 15, seem to take it to heart. And it’s evident all across camp — in the gentle way Kapoor lets Ross choose the activities he wants to do, in playful kidding around at the campfire and raucous play between campers and volunteers at the pool.
“Looking at them, I’m always in awe,” Osborne said. “I don’t know if I could do what they do at [that age], and they just have a great time.”
Some come for the community service hours they are required by their schools or other groups to earn, she added. But they all leave with new perspective.
Osborne tells the story of her own son who volunteered as a teenager. At the end of his first day, he texted his mom that working at the camp wasn’t for him. At the end of the week, he asked her, “Can I do it again?”
“It was really an ‘a-ha’ moment for me,” Osborne said. “Not only are we serving individuals with disabilities, but we’re also serving youth development.”
Some volunteers are long-timers and gradually assume more responsibility each summer. Daria Loach was a young teen when she first volunteered for camp; she’s 21 now, a student at the University of Texas at Austin studying neuroscience and a chief cabin counselor at camp.
She said she’s never wavered in her decision to pursue medical school, but the camp experience inspired her to narrow her career choice to helping adults with disabilities.
On a recent day, Zachary Sanders was operating a giant rope swing for campers who were lined up under a pavilion waiting for their turn. The marketing and finance student at UT Austin was a volunteer at the camp for the first time this summer.
“I came into it kind of with not really many expectations, and it’s been amazing and I’ve loved it so much,” Sanders said. “It’s been pretty life-changing, really rewarding.”
The opportunity to volunteer with other like-minded people was a highlight. “We’re all here for the same reason, and that’s to give these campers an amazing summer,” he said.
He’s certain his brother, who has autism and will attend camp for the first time next year, will have the same experience.
“He struggles with making friends, and he does get made fun of for his interests and his quirks and stuff,” Sanders said. “Being here will be such a welcoming place for him.”