Every year in California, hundreds of thousands of children head off to summer camps. They ride horses, sing songs, go swimming, roast marshmallows around campfires, sleep in cabins, meet new friends and form memories that last a lifetime. For generations, a week at overnight camp has been part of growing up.
But only a handful of camps are set up for kids with disabilities. Often they can make an even larger difference, boosting confidence and self-esteem.
Michael Griggs knows. He was a teenager in a wheelchair, born with cerebral palsy. He was depressed. He felt aimless and sorry for himself when his family encouraged him to visit Camp Harmon, a 40-acre camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Boulder Creek that has served people with disabilities since its founding in 1964.
The week in the redwoods changed his life.
“I was struggling to find my place in the world. I thought ‘nobody will miss me if I was gone,’” Griggs recalled. “But I went to camp and started hearing from everybody, and sharing stories and just being one of the guys. I realized you just have to keep on being you, and people who really matter will stick around. It won’t be because they feel sorry for you or want to take care of you. People will stick around because of who you are. I started to find value in who I was. It gave me confidence.”
Inspired, Griggs came back summer after summer. He graduated from high school, enrolled in college, became student body president, earned a degree in paralegal studies, and today at age 35, works as a student services aide at Los Angeles Mission College in Southern California, where he helps new students sign up for classes.
“Every day I feel I am living out my purpose,” he said, “which is to help people.”
Now Camp Harmon, which has helped lift up so many people like Griggs, needs some help of its own.
The camp, which is run by the nonprofit group Easterseals Central California, had been providing outdoor education to about 600 children and adults each year — campers with autism, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injuries, cerebral palsy and other conditions.
Then the COVID pandemic hit.
The camp closed in 2020. A few months later, the CZU Lightning Complex Fire roared through the Santa Cruz Mountains, burning hundreds of homes and destroying other longtime beloved camp locations near Big Basin Redwoods State Park like Little Basin, a family camping retreat, and Camp Hammer, a Christian camp for children.
The flames also threatened Camp Harmon. But firefighters stopped the advance with a bulldozer line on the edge of the property.
After the fire, Camp Harmon’s insurance costs increased by 40%. COVID continued, forcing the camp to remain closed in 2021 and in 2022, in part because many of the campers have medical conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the disease. The camp has increased fundraising, operated a few small programs and tried to hold video meet-ups, but it has had to lay off staff and continues to take a major financial hit with no revenue coming in from campers.
“It’s devastating,” said Erica Ybarra, executive director of Easterseals Central California. “We feel a significant sense of responsibility. There are so few campgrounds that offer this kind of experience. And there are even fewer after COVID and the fires.”
Easterseals is asking Wish Book supporters to provide $50,000 to help Camp Harmon reopen this spring. The money would be used for tree maintenance and other fire prevention efforts, a new roof on the animal barn, replacing old fencing and signs, new curriculum, and upgrades to sports facilities.
At Camp Harmon, all 13 overnight cabins have wheelchair ramps. The trails are paved. There is a swimming pool, a dining hall, sports fields and a farm area with two miniature horses that campers walk, along with a pair of goats named Oreo and Ginger, and 13 chickens. Camp T-shirts say “Beautifully different, not less.” The camp has a giant swing with a body harness that allows campers to soar 50 feet over the San Lorenzo River, which meanders through the scenic redwood property.
“It’s amazing,” Ybarra said. “The campers come out of the pool or off the big swing and they are rock stars. They have a confidence they didn’t have when they came. We just teach them to believe in themselves.”
Having the campers push their limits and support each other is important, she added.
“All our campers want is to feel ‘quote-unquote regular.’ When they are at camp they feel like they matter,” Ybarra said. “When somebody falls down, they say, ‘Come on buddy, wipe your knees, you’re good. Keep going.’”
The camp was born from generosity. Sixty years ago, two elderly sisters, Jessie and Mignon Harmon, charitably sold the land to Easterseals for $1.
The Harmons were part of a pioneer logging family. In 1867, Oscar and Austin Harmon, their father and uncle, came to California from Maine. They were only 18 years old.
The brothers worked at a lumber mill near Boulder Creek. Within a few years, they built a toll road to Santa Clara County as a business venture. The road, which today is Bear Creek Road, ran to the town of Lexington, a community that was eventually torn down and submerged in 1952 when Lexington Reservoir was built near Los Gatos. Austin died tragically in 1887 when a limb from a falling redwood tree hit him. Oscar died in 1899. But the family’s redwood holdings live on at Camp Harmon.
On a recent weekend, Jim Castelli, 70, of Fremont, visited the camp to learn he had been approved to work next season as a camp ambassador. Castelli, who was born with a developmental disability, had gone to the camp for about 10 years and was overjoyed he would now be helping new campers when they arrive in 2023.
“I’ve met a lot of people here and made a lot of friends,” he said.
Advice for the new campers?
“I like the horses,” Castelli said, laughing. “But let me tell you something. Don’t get behind them.”
THE WISH BOOK SERIES
Wish Book is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization operated by The Mercury News. Since 1983, Wish Book has been producing a series of stories during the holiday season that highlight the wishes of those in need and invite readers to help fulfill them.
Camp Harmon, which is run by the non-profit group Easterseals Central California, will use donations for tree maintenance and other fire prevention efforts, a new roof on the animal barn, replacing old fencing and signs, new curriculum, and upgrades to sports facilities.
HOW TO GIVE
Donate at wishbook.mercurynews.com or mail in the coupon.
Read other Wish Book stories, view photos and video at wishbook.mercurynews.com.
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