The joy of summer camp bubbles through letters from campers and their parents, praising the Arizona Lions' Camp Tatiyee. There are a few tears in the words as well -- tears of gratitude.
"A camp that gives you wings to fly ...," writes Christina Garcia of Payson, a camper.
Camp Tatiyee is in the White Mountains, and is designed to give comfort and pleasure to physically challenged individuals as they participate in a social environment of love and companionship.
"When you drive into the camp, you get a feeling of serenity ...," Garcia writes. "Some of the campers had more severe disabilities than mine ... I felt a bit of an oddball but humbled and honored in their presence ... What made this camping experience special in many ways that there were loving counselors to aid you in any way ..."
"Our daughter, Madilynn was born with Spina Bifida ...," writes Patia Stanton of Avondale, the mother of a camper. "We were thrilled when Madilynn was invited to attend Camp Tatiyee. However, nothing prepared us for the change we would see in our daughter ... we dropped off a nervous, yet excited little girl. One week later we returned to find a young lady who had a whole new perspective. ... The little girl who cried because no one understood what it was like to sit on the sidelines was gone. We took home a young lady who in the following year would become active in chorus, piano, sled hockey, softball, bowling, handcycling, water skiing and swimming. The boundaries were gone for her forever ... Today she expects she will be whatever she sets her mind to become."
Not only does the camp make a tremendous impression on the campers and their parents, the staff also comes away with something very valuable.
"I've been in the Army for five months now and Camp Tatiyee was one of the best things I could have done to prepare for the life as a soldier," writes Pvt. Jeremy Forsyth, of Ft. Huachuca. "Camp Tatiyee taught the most important things that the Army looks for and values in soldiers. Being responsible for such a large amount of special-needs campers taught me responsibility, duty and leadership, as well as teamwork. ...
Watching (the campers) laugh, sing and forget about their problems gave me the courage and the mental fitness to begin a career serving my country."
Heather Ewbanks of Phoenix has been a counselor at Camp Tatiyee for three summers.
"It is certainly a multi-faceted experience," she said. "I have always wanted to work with people with disabilities and this gives me a chance to pursue that dream in a hands-on way. I get to interact with some wonderful people. There is nothing like spending a summer in selfless service. We have a motto among the counselors to keep us on track, ‘Campers first.'"
Shadow on the future
Those magical days at Camp Tatiyee may be numbered. Unless the Lions can raise $3 million to purchase the forest land on which the camp is built, the joy will disappear and the tears will be those of inconsolable sorrow.
The 88-acre camp is on about 300 acres of land in the Sitgreaves National Forest in Pinetop. The U.S. Forest Service is terminating the lease, but has given the Lions the first right of purchase, said George Spears of the Payson Lions. He said the group must buy all the land in order to keep the camp.
"Then we can sell off the rest," Spears said. "We'll make it, but it's going to be tough."
Normally the Lions provide for more than 70 campers to attend each of the eight, week-long sessions free of charge. But in order to move toward buying the land, the club has reduced the number of campers it can sponsor this year. Instead of 72 campers normally hosted in each of the first two sessions, this summer there will only be 32. Other sessions will have only a third of the normal number of campers, Spears said.
The first camp is this week, June 6-11, for multi-challenged adults; the next camp, June 13-18 is for physically challenged adults. There will also be camps for physically challenged children, multi-challenged children, mentally challenged adults, and physically challenged junior and senior high-aged youths. There is also a camp specially designed for the deaf and hearing impaired and a camp for members of the Juvenile Arthritis Foundation.
The camp may be rented by churches or organizations dealing with special populations following the Lions camp season, which concludes July 30.
The Lions are inviting everyone to visit Camp Tatiyee during an open house and barbecue from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, June 13.
The camp is on Highway 260 in Pinetop. From Payson go to Show Low and from Show Low go 7-1/2 miles to Pinetop-Lakeside. The camp has a large sign alongside the road, marking the entrance to the camp.
Camp Tatiyee is a nonprofit organization, so any contributions made to it are tax deductible. To donate directly to the camp, send a check to Lions Camp Tatiyee, P.O. Box 6910, Mesa, AZ 85216.
For more information, contact George Spears at (928) 474-1541.