Anderson Woods connects with campers virtually

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

BRISTOW — Personal connections and friendships are a hallmark of summer camps at Anderson Woods. But this year, those connections are coming in a virtual way.

The decision to take the summer camp for special needs individuals online came after camp leadership realized that running the program amid the COVID-19 pandemic would not work. Social distancing guidelines made the springtime prepwork usually completed by groups of volunteers impossible, Executive Camp Director Megan Gatwood said, and most of the campers are part of the at-risk population. Following social distancing guidelines during camp would be difficult, too, as caring for some of the campers — who range in age from 7 to senior citizens — requires staff to be in close quarters with campers. Wearing masks in the heat wouldn’t offer a fun experience, either.

“There’s no clear-cut way to make sure everyone is safe if we did have camp,” Gatwood said.

But Gatwood and the staff at Anderson Woods didn’t want to leave their campers completely without the Anderson Woods experience that has become a staple of summer for many. This week — which would have been the first week of camp — they launched a virtual version on Facebook.

“Many of [the campers] feel like it’s their camp,” Gatwood said. “It’s their place. We want to still be able to give them something to look forward to.”

On the camp’s Facebook page, staff members are posting daily videos of activities campers would do if they were on site. Gatwood and Camp Director Emma Hurst are posting weekly craft videos. The camp cook, Patty King, posts a video each week showing how to make a camp favorite, like monkey bread and ice cream. Groundskeepers are posting videos of hikes along the trails and updates on the camp’s animals, including a recent update on a duck named Dewey. Camp counselors are reading picture books on camera, and each Saturday evening, a local musician is sharing an hour of music to take the place of singing around the campfire.

“We’re doing our best to put everything online,” Hurst said.

Hurst began working with Anderson Woods as a volunteer eight years ago. She’s come back each year because of the friendships she’s made with the other staff and the campers. By this point, she said, camp would be bustling with activity. But as she walks around camp now helping set up and tape the videos, no one’s there. She’s already begun to miss singing songs with the campers and driving some of the campers with mobility issues from activity to activity.

“You get some really close interactions with them, and we sing songs on the ride,” she said.

Madison Fella of Santa Claus, one the camp counselors, is also missing camp. This is her second year on staff at Anderson Woods, and she was looking forward to reconnecting with friends she made last year and seeing new faces. Although she knows the videos are bringing joy to the campers, it’s just not the same as being able to see the joy on their faces and share the experiences together.

“But we have a lot of people viewing [the videos], so that makes us hope we’re getting to all our campers,” she said.

Michelle Critchlow of Jasper is one of those campers. Michelle and her mom, Jane, have been watching the videos at home, and although it’s not the same, Jane said it’s been nice for Michelle to still be able to see the staff members she’s grown close to over the years. Michelle began attending camp when she was a child. Now, she’s 27.

“[The campers] have kind of grown to expect to be there,” Jane said. “The videos are helping keep some continuity.”

Michelle is often hesitant to watch the videos, Jane said, because of transition resistance. Having virtual camp is a change from the normal routine, and it’s taking some getting used to. But once Michelle sees a familiar face, she gets drawn in. The animal updates also catch her attention.

In addition to the daily videos, Gatwood is setting up a pen pal program between the counselors and the campers that will run all summer. That’s something new, and will allow campers and counselors to keep in touch more than they may normally. In a normal year, campers come for one week, with three weeks of the camp season dedicated to children’s camps and five weeks dedicated to adult camps. At the end of each week, campers head home until next year, and the staff gets ready for the next group to arrive. This summer, though, the pen pal program will keep counselors and campers in touch all summer.

Although camp can’t meet in person, the staff’s goal is the same — connect with campers and spread joy.

“We know that if we can make one of our campers or past campers smile for a day, we did our job,” Gatwood said. “And even if we can’t reach all of our campers, hopefully we’ll be able to spread the word and raise awareness about Anderson Woods.”

The nonprofit camp was founded in 1978 when three adult campers spent the summer sleeping in tents on Bristow property. Since then, the camp has grown to host about 200 children and adults — who now sleep in cabins — each summer. Some of the adult campers have been attending almost as long as the camp has been operating. The oldest camper is 73 years old, Gatwood said.

It’ll be strange not having the campers this year, but Gatwood knows the camp’s leadership made the right call.

“No one gets hurt by not having camp,” she said. “But by having camp there’s a chance of someone getting sick.”

More information on Anderson Woods can be found on the camp’s website, www.andersonwoods.org, and on the camp’s Facebook page.




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