By Staff Sgt. Robert Cloys
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
Tucked away to the west of Denver is Rocky Mountain Village Easter Seals Camp. Like many other children’s camps, there’s horseback riding, fishing, zip-lining, hiking, crafts and campfires. But for some of the children who come to this camp, those things can be a little difficult; especially with neuromuscular diseases. For that reason, three Schriever members took an entire week out of their busy schedules to volunteer at the camp during one of their Muscular Dystrophy weeks June 16-21.
Senior Airman Luke Howell, 50th Operations Group, along with Airmen 1st Class Erica Doss and Zach Ray, 50th Space Communications Squadron, made the journey to Rocky Mountain Village not entirely sure what to expect, but ultimately walked away with an experience they would never forget.
“When I first got there, I was really nervous. I had never worked with kids before,” said Ray. “As a nursing student, I worked with adults with mobility issues or autism, but never with young kids. I was really nervous going in and didn’t know how to act. The first day I think it was awkward for the both of us; me and [the child I was paired with]. But by the end of it, he was just a normal 10-year-old kid who was really optimistic about life and very determined.”
The camp served dual purposes, to give children an opportunity to do things they never thought they could do and give their parents some time to themselves.
“The main focus of the camp is to take away the feeling that kids with disabilities are set up to fail,” said Howell. “At camp, they’re the center of attention; the world revolves around them. It not only helps give their parents a break, but it’s about the kids feeling invincible for a week; like they don’t have a disability.”
Throughout the week, the three Airmen stayed in the camp and helped children with basic tasks. Muscle degeneration in some made simple things like going to the restroom in the middle of the night or simply rolling over in their bed nearly impossible without help.
During the day, the children and volunteers would swim, paint each other’s faces and even go hiking.
One two-hour trek up a nearby mountain even surprised Doss with the amount of determination the kids had.
“It was even difficult for me to squeeze through some of the small pathways leading up the mountain,” she said. “The kids were loving it. They wanted to keep going, even in wheelchairs, and it was us who wanted to take breaks.”
One of the greatest moments that happened during the volunteers week at camp centered around a little boy named Dylan. Howell had been mentoring him during his week there. The year before at camp, Dylan was ambulatory, but muscle degeneration had left him bound to his scooter during much of his time at camp this time around.
“One day, he just really wanted to walk,” said Howell. “He could tell the difference between last year and this year with his degeneration.”
Dylan told Howell that he really just wanted to do what he used to do.
“It was just so moving to see that desire. You could see just how much he wanted it,” said Howell. “So, we decided we would try it one day.”
The idea was to see if they could get Dylan to walk up the ramp to the camp’s dining facility. With two people holding each of Dylan’s arms he started to make his attempt. Halfway up, his legs cramped causing him to collapse.
Dylan was devastated at the result and became discouraged and frustrated, but Howell knew that he could do it and spent the next morning motivating and amping Dylan up to try again.
This time the scene had been set. Howell along with the camp’s director and another counselor brought Dylan to the ramp to the dining facility. This time he had an entire team cheering him on. Others had lined up on the ramp to cheer him on including an entire row of girls at the top.
“Dylan loved girls,” Howell said grinning as he recalled the event.
This time, the motivation was what Dylan needed. With a little help, he stepped from his scooter traveled up the full length of the ramp. Cheers rang out from all around him.
“It was an emotional experience,” said Howell. “We take things for granted like just walking around or walking into buildings, but they miss it. There’s joy in seeing little things like a child walk into a dining facility. It’s kind of cool.”
Howell, Doss and Ray all said it’s something they look forward to doing again.
“I’ve already signed up for next year,” said Doss. “They want me back and I want to be back. Hopefully, I can do two weeks next year.”
For more information on ways to help children with neuromuscular diseases, visit MDA.org. To volunteer at Rocky Mountain Village Easter Seals Camp visit co.easterseals.com. Permissive leave may be authorized for some volunteer opportunities. Check with your chain of command before volunteering.