By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published May 28, 2015
RUTLEDGE—The campers at Toni’s Camp could not contain their excitement the morning of Saturday, May 2, as Deacon Bob Brunton issued his set of rules for the day.
“Not a lot of frowns, no tears and lots and lots of fun,” instructed Deacon Brunton, one of many volunteers for the annual camp of the archdiocese’s Disabilities Ministry. Brunton is a deacon at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Alpharetta.
Held the weekend of May 1-3 at Camp Twin Lakes in Rutledge, Toni’s Camp offered fishing, paddle boating, crafts, kick ball matches, and an evening dance on Saturday. Auxiliary Bishop David P. Talley, a longtime volunteer, celebrates Mass for the campers and friends Sunday morning in the outdoor amphitheater.
The camp is for men and women 18 years and older who have intellectual and physical disabilities. The recreational program is open to individuals of all faiths.
As campers and paired counselors waited for the day to get underway, they sat on a slope lined with stone benches.
“They’re supporting all of you,” said the deacon about the stones. “That’s what life should be like for us. We’re supposed to be a big stone.”
Deacon Brunton said we are all stones of different shapes and sizes, and that smiles are the “putty” holding them together.
Maggie Rousseau, Disabilities Ministry director, said 82 campers attended this year, housed in 22 cabins.
“We had a wait list of 17,” said Rousseau. Adding more volunteers to the roster would mean more campers could participate.
‘Guys get to be guys’
Assigned counselors dedicate the entire weekend to helping their new friend experience the outdoors and all Toni’s Camp has to offer. Volunteers are ages 14 and older.
West Forsyth High School student Michael Miller has been volunteering for four years. This year Miller was teamed with Willy Watkins, a camper for 30 years.
Many campers look forward all year to the retreat-style weekend.
“This is like their life,” explained Miller.
Miller’s last two campers were wheelchair-bound, which was a challenging experience.
“It’s like the campers are your children. When I had to leave, it was really sad,” said Miller about last year.
Rousseau said there’s a definite need for more male teens to volunteer.
Many of the male campers’ daily caretakers are women, and for them Toni’s Camp is a chance to form other friendships.
“This is where the guys get to be guys,” said Rousseau.
Volunteers are oriented about what to expect, stay in cabin groups with their campers and others. Rousseau said team leaders are always readily available for support when needed.
“We never have a cabin that’s all new volunteers,” she explained.
Miller is very patient, but realizes not all young men may have that quality.
“Guys aren’t as nurturing,” he offered.
Miller, who runs track and plays baseball, is interested in becoming a physical therapist one day. His mother, Felicia, is a camp nurse.
“It’s really great for teens,” said Rousseau about the service.
While many of the volunteers are teens, there was not a cell phone in sight as they focused on interacting with campers.
Willy Watkins fueled up for the day with “scrambled eggs, grits and bacon” and wanted paddle boating to be his first adventure of the day.
“We have to get a life vest first,” Miller told Watkins.
They climbed aboard the boat after donning vests to explore the far reaches of the lake.
Afterward, they grabbed a bamboo pole to go fishing off a covered dock, using bread as bait.
Toni’s Camp volunteers are hooked
“You’re a thief,” camper Katie White told a turtle stealing her bait. White wished she’d had a camera to snap a photo of the turtle.
“It will be in your memories though,” White’s volunteer, Savannah Fritz, told her.
Fritz, a first-time volunteer, is a homeschool student and parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Carrollton.
While some of the volunteers are working to meet service hours, Fritz had another reason.
“This is just for pleasure,” she said.
A rising senior, Fritz plans to be a chef.
Chase Hurlimann drove all the way from Texas to volunteer for Toni’s Camp, having
been a volunteer every year since the ninth grade.
Hurlimann initially began helping as a St. Pius X High School student.
“We had to do community service. I just got hooked,” he said.
Hurlimann volunteered through high school, college and is now a teacher. “It was a good avenue,” he said about determining his career path.
Camper Kathleen Jablonski caught a fish and quickly named it in honor of her volunteer, Laura Orf.
Jablonski is a veteran camper, competes in swim events for Special Olympics, and is a parishioner of St. Jude the Apostle in Atlanta.
Orf, set to graduate from Valdosta State University, has already accepted a job as a special education teacher at Wilson Creek Elementary School in Fulton County.
The two seemed like longtime friends but had just met.
Orf previously volunteered at the camp, but Jablonski had been showing her little known spots around Camp Twin Lakes.
“She’s taken me places,” said Orf.
Jablonski was particularly excited about the evening dance and the chocolate chip cookies to be served. She purchased a fancy shirt and nice earrings especially for the party.
Nicole Manning, a volunteer for 32 years, brings her 40-year-old sister KeKe to camp each year.
At KeKe’s birth, doctors told her family that she was profoundly mentally retarded, and would likely never walk.
“She actually started walking at 4,” said Manning. Once KeKe feels comfortable in a setting, she’s very outgoing.
Teaching farm is a new experience
Manning’s mother knew the daughter of camp founder Toni Miralles, and while they are non-Catholic they joined right in. Miralles, who first became an advocate to help her daughter, Felicia, dedicated 30 years of her life to the disabilities ministry before her death in 2000.
The family knew KeKe was enjoying the camp that first year because of her constant smiles.
Manning works to give her sister the best quality of life possible and looks for anything to motivate her.
They volunteer at a program called New Day by compiling hygiene kits for the homeless. Manning is a licensed care provider for others with special needs.
“This is a passion. It’s a great field,” said Manning.
A newer activity at Camp Twin Lakes is the teaching farm. Toni’s Campers are able to feed chickens, feel feathery asparagus plants, and eat Russian kale and broccoli leaves straight from the garden. They played games with gourds and smelled different varieties of mint plants.
“It smells good, too,” said camper Annie Bourke about a plant with a chocolate mint fragrance.
Eggs from the chickens and produce from the garden are used in the camp’s dining hall.
Farm coordinator Nathan Fussell showed a pile of compost of soil, plant seeds, and bark to the campers.
“Do you see how fluffy it is?” Nathan asked the group. Each camper took a turn feeling the texture of the rich soil.
“They get exposed to stuff they wouldn’t have before,” said Fussell. The farm is 120 acres and has a newly constructed barn.
Rousseau hopes that more parishes will become involved in Toni’s Camp either by sending campers or volunteers.
Nearly 45 parishes had representatives participate last year in some manner, and approximately 28 percent of campers were non-Catholic.
Rousseau said she cannot stress enough to parishes that the Disabilities Ministry is a great way to involve youth, to live the faith and share the faith with others—all key themes of the archdiocese’s new pastoral plan.
“This ministry is the new pastoral plan,” said Rousseau.
For more information on Toni’s Camp or ways to volunteer, contact Maggie Rousseau of the Disabilities Ministry of the Atlanta Archdiocese at email@example.com or 404-920-7682. The 2016 camp is scheduled for April 30-May 2.