Digital Letters from A Unique Summer Camp

REDMOND, Wash., Aug. 6, 2001 — Henri Carlton and her husband Kenneth were nervous the first time they dropped off their son, Jim, at Camp Greentop eight years ago. Reflecting on the experience nearly a decade later, they now realize those first 10 days of camp changed all of their lives.

“I thought to myself, ‘My God, he had a great time,'” Carlton recalls about Jim’s return home that summer. “For the first time, he was able to be independent of his parents and the stigma of being disabled.”

Jim, now 19, was discovered to have cerebral palsy at the age of three months. He grew up using a wheelchair and requires assistance with typical activities of daily living. Camp Greentop is a recreational summer camp for people with disabilities in Maryland’s Cacoctin Mountain Park near Baltimore.

To support its effort to continually improve the lives of people like Jim Carlton, Camp Greentop this year received a Technology Enriched Communities (TEC) grant from Microsoft. Camp Greentop is using the award to purchase up-to-date computers that will enable the camp to operate more efficiently, create a Web site that will allow parents to stay in touch with their children and build a technology infrastructure that supports what the camp has been doing for 64 summers — changing lives by changing perceptions.

“At Microsoft, our belief is that people can accomplish amazing things with the right tools and resources,” says Sarah Meyer, senior program manager with Microsoft Community Affairs.

Technology for Everyone

TEC is a Microsoft Community Affairs program formerly known as the Connected Learning Community. Distributed through Microsoft field sales offices, the TEC grants of cash and software are meant to support access to technology that will enhance learning and communication in disadvantaged communities. Microsoft began making TEC grants in 1996; to date, the program has awarded 189 grants worth $2.57 million and has donated $8.66 million worth of software.

“Microsoft takes its role as a corporate citizen very seriously,” Meyer says. “Software and technology know-how is our expertise and is a resource that we have the privilege and opportunity to share with those who might not otherwise have access.”

Microsoft’s giving strategy is to rely on those who know the local communities best — the people who live and work in them, Meyers says. “We realize we can’t sit in Redmond and know what’s important in Maryland,” she says. “We leverage our employees, who really know what’s important in a community. They identify programs that meet our funding objectives and then develop partnerships and work toward finding sustainable solutions that make a real and lasting difference in people’s lives.”

The Resources to Make a Real and Lasting Difference

Alex Gieser, executive director at Camp Greentop, says the Microsoft grant has made just such a real and lasting difference in the lives of staff, parents and, most of all, the campers. Prior to the TEC grant, all of Camp Greentop’s technology equipment was on loan. Gieser used the grant money to purchase more up-to-date computers, resulting in less staff time devoted to paperwork and more to campers.

The grant has also given staff the ability to quickly access the campers’ medical information. At a place like Camp Greentop, Gieser explains, medical records are more important than in more typical settings.

Many of the campers are non-verbal and have disabilities that are considered significant and result in the mental capacity of a toddler, even though the camper may be an adolescent or adult. “Our campers are often unable to say when they’re in pain, or hungry,” he says. “We need to be really knowledgeable about their needs.”

The conditions that characterize the daily lives of the campers at Camp Greentop, Gieser says, result in a higher-than-average level of real and perceived anxiety for parents and caregivers when a group of strangers, out in the middle of a national forest, assumes responsibility for their care.

Daily Communication, Daily Reassurance

Thus, one of the more popular uses of the TEC grant is the Web site that Camp Greentop maintains for parents and families. Gieser used part of the Microsoft grant to purchase a digital camera system, and every day posts pictures that offer a tour of the camp’s daily activities on the Web site. “My goal was to communicate better with parents,” he says.

The parents, Gieser says, appreciate the new channel of communication to the tune of 7,000 hits in just one month.

Jeanne Klein of Springfield, Va., says that the Web site offers her and her husband added peace of mind while their son Justin is off at camp. “Our son can’t talk, so we can’t call up there and get him on the phone,” she says. Justin Klein, 18, who has attended Camp Greentop for the past four summers, has a significant developmental disability. “For us to be able to check the Web site and see all the different activities that are going on is great,” his mother says.

The digital pictures, Klein says, will provide a new tool with which her family can enjoy Camp Greentop long after the 10-day session is over. “Pictures mean a lot to Justin,” she says. “He uses them to communicate what he wants, to tell stories, to express himself. He really enjoyed it when we showed him the pictures we’d seen from camp. For him, and for us, pictures are about connecting.”

Gieser has also used the TEC grant to set up a wireless network that enables staff to do computer work while still spending time with the campers. It also funded a PC that camp staff use to produce two newsletters each session to keep families current on cabin activities, the weather, funny things that happened and the skits at the talent show. In the future, he plans to establish, when possible, direct e-mail connections between the campers and their families.

Digitally Savvy Camp Counselors

While the primary benefactors of Camp Greentop’s technological upgrade are the campers and their parents, it has also improved life for the backbone of the camp — the counselors.

Phil Keck, a student at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, serves as head lifeguard and pool program leader at Camp Greentop. Keck, who plans to attend medical school, says a technology infrastructure is an essential component for all organizations, whether it’s a multi-national corporation or a summer camp in rural Maryland.

“It’s logistically important to know where people need to be and what supplies are needed,” he says. “It’s also important for communication. I thought I was coming a long way from New Mexico, but we have three people here from Russia. We use e-mail to keep in touch with our families.”

E-mail comes in handy for the campers as well, Keck says. “I had a kid who was homesick and cried every night at bedtime,” he says. “It was nice to be able to show him an e-mail from his parents, so that he knew they were thinking about him. It was reassuring for him, and it made my job easier.”

Scott Deans, a theater major at Frostburg State University in Maryland, has taken technology a step further in his role as the camp’s evening program leader.

“I set up the music for the dances,” he says. “Instead of constantly flipping CDs like we did in the past, I used the CD burner to make a master copy, meaning I can have as much fun at the dances as the campers do,” he says.

Deans, too, has taken advantage of the digital camera. “Last year at the banquet on the last night of camp, we had customized place settings,” he recalls. This year, pictures were taken of each camper and placed on photo paper and made into a signature book that included a picture of the camper’s cabin mates and a list of names, numbers and addresses. “It’s important for campers to be able to remember their time here,” he says.

Keck and Deans say that it’s equally important for them, as counselors, to remember their time at Camp Greentop.

Witnessing interactions among campers is Dean’s greatest reward. “It’s a wonderful environment,” he says. “Most of the campers don’t get the chance to interact with other people who are living with disabilities. For all of us, it’s a growing experience.”

“It’s About Making A Difference”

Technology, says Henri Carlton, the mother of longtime camper Jim Carlton, is helping people with disabilities and those who care for them make advances that would have been unthinkable in the past.

And making a difference — even if it’s just experiencing a shift in perspective — is something Carlton says she treasures. Her son uses a wheelchair. His vocabulary consists of only 15 words. Yet his mother, thanks in large part to her son’s experiences at Camp Greentop, describes him much the same as mothers of most teenage boys.

“Jim is happy and he is easy-going,” she says. “He loves people, he love activities. He wants to be a part of everything, including decision-making. He’s very adventurous. He loves girls.”

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