During my childhood and youth the term crippled was often applied to people with a handicap or disability – The Shriner’s Hospital for Crippled Children is just one example I can still recall. Of course, names were changed over time to reflect the latest politically-correct terminology.
There weren’t many opportunities for children with handicaps to participate in activities that were similar to their able-bodied peer group — summer camps were part of the experience disabled kids were largely prevented from enjoying. However, I was lucky enough to be in a good place as some of that was beginning to change.
From the summer of 1954 through the summer of ’65 I attended Camp Fairlee Manor — located just a short distance outside the small town of Fairlee, Maryland, near Chestertown. The summer camp was operated for handicapped children living in Delaware and parts of Maryland by the local Easter Seals office. I believe that I started with one of the earliest years this camp was running — perhaps in its 2nd year!
Each camping session began on a Sunday afternoon and ended almost two weeks later on Friday morning — after breakfast. The sessions took place from mid-June through mid-August when schools and colleges were not generally operating — most of Camp Fairlee’s counselors were college students.
The landowner's residence appears after recent restoration work.
From the outset, the campers and staff lived in the Manor House — what had originally been a residence built for the land owner sometime in the 1800s.
There was no swimming pool so each day we rode in the back of a large stake-bodied farm truck in order to go swimming – perhaps 10 to 12 campers and about half as many counselors. Our trip was maybe 10 to 15 miles and the truck had straw in the back for us to sit or lay upon.
I could still walk, with difficulty, and remember we had to use a very long wooden-staircase attached to the face of what was perhaps a 25 foot cliff in order to reach the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. A difficult climb down and worst going up! Frequently, I was carried up the stairs by a male counselor.
Within a few years two basic summer dormitories were built — no insulation or air conditioning. One dorm housed the boys and a smaller one was for the girls. The number of campers per session expanded to about 30 or 40. The number of counselors also grew — so that none would have more than 2 campers each.
Two pools had been added around the time the dorms were built:
- One was a large wading pool — water depth of a foot and a half or two;
- The other was a swimming pool with a diving board.
Campers had to start in the wading pool until they could prove they could float and wouldn’t be in danger in the bigger pool — most never moved out of the wading pool.
As a teen I looked for things I could do that my peers couldn’t or wouldn’t.
From the time I was approved for the swimming pool I began pushing my limits. I could slide off the wheelchair seat onto the diving board. Then I’d wiggle out on the board and fall off the end. I made a good sized splash when I struck the water — which was perhaps 3 feet below the board. Although I enjoyed making my big splash, it was something I could only do once each day — no one was gonna get me out of the pool just to let me fall back in!
I had already been holding my breath underwater in the wading pool — floating with my face down. Being in the deeper pool soon inspired me to try getting below the surface as far as I could. But, I couldn’t swim hard enough to get very deep — I kept bobbing-up like a float on a fishing line.
There was a ladder on the deep end which extended to a depth of about 4 feet. I began climbing-down the ladder so I could get deeper under the water. That worked as long as I held on — but as soon as I let go I floated back to the surface.
Before long I began asking the counselors to watch me and to time me. I don’t recall whether it was during my first year in the swimming pool or the second, but I became able to stay underwater for longer than a minute and a half.
After my success, I spoke often about my breath-holding skill/capacity. I’d practice breathing deeply and holding my breath whether I was at summer camp or not. And, none of my able-bodied friends could do it as long as I.
In time, I learned that I could hyper-ventilate (take multiple deep breaths in rapid succession until I was feeling a little light-headed) — then I could exhale and climb down the ladder more easily. Once I reached the bottom of the ladder I could push-off toward the center of the pool and stick my fingers into the drain-grate — holding it to prevent my floating back to the surface. Although I don’t remember the year, I can remember the following quite well:
I had asked one of the counselors to time me while I held onto the grate. I was calmly watching the other swimmers from my place on the bottom of the pool when someone jumped in and began tugging on my arm — he was looking at my face and pointing upward. When we reached the surface he started asking me if I was alright. I said I was. Then I noticed a crowd had gathered around the pool looking at me.
Turned-out that the counselor thought I had become stuck in the grate because I was there such a long time — longer than 2 minutes and 15 seconds. I was told, “never do that again!”
Even though I got a scratch on my face while being rescued, I was quite proud of holding my breath that long underwater.
The incident did kinda change my somewhat-risky behavior during my time at camp — I even won the Outstanding Camper Award during one of my sessions. However, it didn’t seem to influence my behavior back home… I’ll write about that in future postings.
In the years since I graduated from high school, Camp Fairlee Manor began having at least one session for adults each summer. But, my life had become to involved with work and family in the meantime so I never took advantage of the opportunity.
Nowadays, Easter Seals Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore offers so much more at Fairlee Manor than they used to — excerpts from their website describes it this way:
“Fairlee Manor Recreation and Education Center is a beautiful, residential/recreational and respite camp on 250 sprawling acres on Fairlee Creek which offers campers from age 6 and up the opportunity to experience the joys and challenges of camp in a fully-accessible setting.”
“Fairlee Manor’s residential camp generally serves an average of 50 to 75 children and adults each week with physical disabilities and/or cognitive impairments throughout the summer and on select weekends year-round.”
“The respite camp at Fairlee Manor serves children and adults with the most involved physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioral disabilities, including some medically-fragile individuals. The number of campers are fewer than those that attend the residential camp in order to meet extensive personal needs. The respite program operates on weekends on a year-round basis.”
Fairlee Manor also offers conference and meeting space for rent. Cabins can also be rented on select weekends. Quite a big difference from my days at summer camp!
Thanks for stopping-by and reading my ramblings. The links will allow you to explore more of what Fairlee Manor has available and other programs offered by Easter Seals Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore.