Making memories at Camp Riley

Joe and Mary Conley pose with their granddaughter Alexis Hicks, who attended Camp Riley in Bradford Woods in late July. It was her last year of the program to hang with other kids who have similar experiences to her own.Kylie Perkins attended her first year of Camp Riley in Bradford Woods in southern Indiana this year in mid-June. Kylie particularly loved horseback riding, an activity that made her equally nervous and excited.Andrew Sommers is seen here with his parents Dan and Michelle, who are pleased with the quality of Camp Riley. Riley's makes every effort to accommodate the kids who attend from modified scuba gear to slings for kids to climb a rockwall, the counselors and staff at the camp are one of a kind.
Rachael Herbert-Varchetto
Staff Writer

MARSHALL COUNTY — Breaking the mold and stretching out to do things beyond that comfortable space can make for great memories. Ask the kids who attend Camp Riley in Bradford Woods.
A group of Marshall County kids attended this summer down south at the camp, some their first year, and some for their last.
Among them were Alexis Hicks, 18 of Argos, Andrew Sommers, 13 of Plymouth, and Kylie Perkins, 11 of Bremen.
For Sommers and Perkins, it was their first year going to the camp that has seen hundreds of children go through the life-changing experience of what the Riley's camp can offer.
Both attended the June 14 to 19 camp and missed it once they came home.
"I never went anywhere for one week," explained Perkins, who will be entering the 6th grade this year. "IU never done something like that before."
Perkins is in a wheel chair and has spina bifida, a condition in which the spinal cord is exposed at birth, presenting potential paralysis. For Perkins, she has no feeling below her knees, but can walk somewhat with assistance.
Her mom Candy found the experience rewarding for her child.
"I liked Camp Riley's because she got to do stuff she's never got to do before, and they got her to try stuff that I know we wouldn't have been able to get her to do. She was totally dead set against the rock climbing, but she did it," she said.
Candy however felt that the experience taught her daughter the important lesson of self-confidence.
"In meeting kids with similar disabilities, she really needed it because around here there's very few that have what she has. It kind of showed her there's other ones like her too, and it helped a little bit with her confidence," said Candy.
Perkins particularly loved the horseback riding, an activity she has never experienced before. She was a little nervous because of the size of the horses.
"But it was so fun," she added.
For Summers, who has cerebral palsy and autism, the camp was a great experience as well, as he felt that he fit in.
"I hung out with a bunch of people with special needs and I fit in. I don't go lower than everybody else. It's equally balanced," he said.
His mom, Michelle Sommers, clarified.
"At Camp Riley, he felt the same as the rest even though his disability may not have been the same as theirs," she said.
Sommers bonded with his counselors, where there was a 1:1 ratio between them and the campers. Many were there as part of summer internships toward their careers of physical and speech therapy or medical related careers.
Of his summer experiences, he fondly remembers learning to play rummy with one counselor, Olivia, who made a big impact on the 13-year-old. Swimming, music therapy, horseback riding, sports, and challenge day activities filled his day where he got to be himself with other kids.
"They always smiled," he said of the counselors. "I mean always 100 percent of the time, They usually never frown or get angry and they always have a smile on their face."
Michelle and his father Dan, both appreciate the camp.
"I really felt like he was in good hands when we left him in the cabin and stuff. I felt like Andrew's going to have a really good time and he's going to be really well cared for," she reflected. "One of the things I like about camp is they encourage them to move and not be stuck behind an electronic gadget. It gets Andrew busy and enjoying himself."
For Alexis Hicks, this was a to be a memorable summer, as it was her last year at Camp Riley.
Hicks also has cerebral palsy, but is confined to a wheelchair and is quadriplegic. That doesn't stop her, however.
"It's my time to be me," Hicks said of the two weeks she spent from July 12 to 24 at the Beyond the Woods program, a more advanced program for kids to be mentored by adults who've been through similar experiences as their charges.
"When she's down there, she's not different. She's just like every other kid that's down there. All of them have special needs and she's not the different kid that's getting snickered at," said her grandmother, Mary Conley.
Hicks is known for being one of the most adventurous campers in her cabin, usually earning a fearless or can-do award in her time down there.
Her speech is difficult to decipher, and Mary helps to translate during the interview.
"There's a special gal from Fort Wayne, Ginny, and she's been helpful in helping us figure out some college opportunities. She's been very supportive and someone that Alexis can talk to or chat with on email or Facebook, and would have more of an understanding what she's going through, her frustrations," said Mary.
Often Hicks will be found running around with her three camp friends, Mercedes, Tiff, and Heer, who've grown up with the girl since the first year she attended.
Currently, Hicks is considering the idea of coming back as a counselor herself to mentor to youngsters who share a similar experience to her won.
"I want to go to college," she said, with Mary explaining that Hicks wants to pursue a degree in counseling or outreach, though her talents point strongly toward science.
Mary stated that she never worries when Hicks is at the camp and if helps to develop her independence.
This year, Hicks got to zipline, a tradition done by the Beyond the Woods campers as part of their last year. Hicks enjoyed the activity.
"It used to be she would get a little teary-eyed when we left, now it's as soon as we're there it's 'Are you gone yet,'" laughed Mary. "And she's teary-eyed when we pick her up to go home. She doesn't want to leave. She's made lasting friendships with some of the counselors there."
Often community groups will sponsor the kids, such as the American Legion, Lion's Club, or Ladies Auxiliary through a campership.