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Building bridges of friendship: Camp ReCreation reaches out to those with physical and mental disabilities

Press Photos by Linda Sailer Camp ReCreation campers and counselors sing words of praise during music Wednesday at Richardton-Taylor High School. The classes were led by volunteer Jan Olson.

RICHARDTON -- Spontaneous hugs, smiles and greetings filled the hallways of Richardton-Taylor High School when the 38th annual Camp ReCreation got underway last week.

Thirty-eight campers with mental and physical disabilities were matched with counselors for four days of camping experiences. The first camp concluded Thursday, and the second camp begins Monday.

Danelle Hoff, a camp director from Richardton, credits the camp's success to the year-around work of the Camp ReCreation board of directors.

"It's very inspirational and most rewarding to come back every year to smiling faces," she said.

The campers come from all over the state and western Montana.

"We try to make it one-on-one as much as possible," she said. "Sometimes, that doesn't work and then we have two campers per counselor."

The high school is transformed into camp central, with classrooms converted into dormitories and meals in the cafeteria.

"We eat here, we sleep here, but when it's nice outside, we do get into the community as well," Hoff said.

Hoff has participated in the camp since she was barely able to walk because her mother was the program director. The campers are volunteers who are recruited from throughout North Dakota.

"It's a rewarding experience for them," Hoff said. "You give your life up for a week to help the campers. It's one of those deals where you come a little timid, not knowing what to expect. By the end of the day, you're smiling, having a wonderful time and building lifetime friends."

The camp experience also has inspired several campers to pursue special needs careers or social work she said.

The campers pay a $185 fee, but it doesn't cover all the expenses. Camp ReCreation has several fundraisers, including fruit sales in the summer, selling concessions at Little Opreyland in Richardton and a raffle. The sponsors from the surrounding communities also help cover the final expenses, Hoff said.

Program director Lisa Lawrence has assisted with the camp for 26 years. She returns each year because of the difference she sees in people's lives.

"It's not just the campers who can express themselves differently in a daily routine, but it's also the counselors," she said. "You get a whole different reference on how they truly are as a person."

A typical day starts with flag raising and prayers, followed by breakfast. The campers are divided into classes, such as music and religion in the morning, then games and art in the afternoon.

The highlight of camp is Wednesday, when a formal banquet and dance are held in the evening.

"They get to dress up, and we bring in DJ's," she said.

Camp has other highlights, including an afternoon of bowling in Dickinson and musical entertainment in the evenings.

"It's things they don't normally get to see," she said.

Other camp activities include swimming when it's warm, games such as bingo or a carnival in the gymnasium. Fireworks is another event they look forward to on Wednesday. Camp concludes at 4 p.m. Thursday.

Lawrence, who lives in Bismarck, looks forward to camp each year.

"Our lives are really busy -- I have my job, my children and job, but you walk into the door and see their faces the first day and you know exactly why you're there and the difference it makes," she said.