Disabled children who go to Camp Tatiyee in Pinetop-Lakeside don't cry when they get there, they cry when they leave, said executive director Pam Swanson.
"They love it here," she said. "It's the best self-esteem builder they can get."
That's why George Spears, a Payson man and Lions of Arizona member, wants to get as many children from Payson there as he can.
"The kids we've gotten in there before were so ecstatic about it, I don't want anyone to miss out," he said. "The facilities and the way the camp is run are marvelous."
Payson does not typically send many campers, said Jeanie Welch, a Tatiyee coordinator at Payson High School.
"We're lucky to get one or two," she said. "A lot of parents are very protective and it's hard for them to trust, even though there is one counselor for every two campers. We're hoping parents will learn about how safe the camp is and let their kids go."
To raise community interest in the camp, the Lions, which have sponsored it since its first year in 1958, are having an open house June 10.
Attendants can tour the facilities, which include an indoor swimming pool, pond, chapel, science center and wheelchair-lane equipped baseball diamond.
Camp Tatiyee is for mentally challenged and physically challenged children and adults. Each week between May 24 and Aug. 1, a new group of 72 campers visit the camp. In 1958, a dozen campers attended. Now 500 campers visit Tatiyee each summer.
"We couldn't do any of it without the support of the Lions," Swanson said. "They have never asked for any money from the kids or their families. They can donate if they want to, but nothing is demanded, even though it costs $272,000 to run the camp each summer."
The Lions fund-raise all year long, and have been trying to negotiate a land deal for the last two years that would put them in a better financial situation, Lions marketing director Gary Corato said.
The camp is on 344 acres of U.S. Forest Service land that the Lions want to purchase. Forest Service land cannot be bought; it must be traded.
Corato said the Lions have bought private land that Forest Service officials are interested in acquiring for the public. Eventually, the Lions hope to trade the private land to the Forest Service for the camp land, and then the Lions will own the camp outright.
Swanson is excited about the deal, which she thinks will be a great investment. And she knows a good deal about investments at least those of a personal sort.
Swanson started working at Tatiyee during her first summer in college. She returned the next three summers, and met her husband there. He was a counselor, too.
"The kids we meet here teach us so much," Swanson said. "We learn about compassion and unconditional love from them."
The children learn a lot at Tatiyee, too, like how it feels to be accepted.
"A lot of the kids are very isolated before they get here," Swanson said. "There might be only one other wheelchair user at their school, but here, they get to see other people going though the same thing.
"They get to play games and win, and be first for once. It's nice to watch them get spoiled for a little while."
Spears agreed and said the camp does more for disabled adults and children than most people imagine. Anyone interested in learning more about the camp, or spending a day in the Pinetop-Lakeside area at the open house June 10, may call 537-2421 for more information.
Applicants may call Jeanie Welch at 472-5800.