As the summer days draw to a close during the last week at Lions Camp Horizon, campers can be found unwinding from a busy day at Birch Bay State Park by writing positive notes of encouragement to each other.
This camp activity, called “warm fuzzies” for the happy feelings it brings to participants, is one of camper Tatiana Axthelm’s favorites. She’s been coming to camp for the past few years and she said she feels at peace with her friends and the counselors here.
“I love camp counselors, they’re amazing,” Axthelm said.
Everyone at Lions Camp Horizon has a camp nickname and the other campers call Axthelm “Disney” after her love of all things Disney.
Known as “Seastar” around the campers, Sarah O’Brien has been a counselor at Lions Camp Horizon for the past eight years. Her younger and older brothers have been campers and often request her as their counselor.
“Every year, there’s campers I really connect with,” O’Brien said. “I feel like camp gets better and better every year.”
A few years ago during a staff meeting, she encouraged her coworkers to center the camp’s focus on its campers, who have disabilities, rather than its staff.
Campers are her favorite part of being a counselor. She said she loves the job so much that she would do it for free.
Lions Camp Horizon offered six sessions this summer, each lasting one week. The first four weeks were “regular camp,” with activities centered on the main campus and with many staff members and campers present. 200 slots (50 per week) were open for campers.
Adventure camp was held during the last two weeks. These sessions had a total of 60 slots to register (30 per week), and more activities outside of Lions Camp Horizon were made possible with the help of community volunteers. These included horseback riding, mini-golfing and hot air balloon rides.
“The entire season has gone really well,” executive director Tera Contezac said. “We’ve had quite a few campers attend multiple sessions because they’ve enjoyed it so much.”
Contezac was hired as executive director of the camp this past April. She previously worked on providing employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities for eight years. She has been focusing on increasing public awareness of Lions Camp Horizon, gathering support from the community and championing the idea that recreation should be accessible for all community members and that everyone deserves a vacation.
A new sponsorship program, launched this year by Contezac, provides sponsors with the opportunity to help offset the cost of meals, art supplies and activities for the campers. This way, costs are kept low and more campers are able to afford the tuition to attend Lions Camp Horizon. Contezac said the sponsorship program brought in $10,000.
Contezac, in her first summer with Lions Camp Horizon, is amazed to see the older campers return who have been coming to the camp for decades.
The largest portion of campers come from western Washington, Contezac said, with British Columbia representing the next biggest percentage.
“It’s probably one of the few international disability camps in the country,” Contezac said.
The most recent vandalism incidents have stirred curiosity and concern among some campers. Contezac has had a few campers approach her to ask about the incidents, which took place in late January. During the incidents, vandals forced entry into three of the four dormitory buildings and discharged multiple dry-chemical fire extinguishers, causing extensive damage to carpets, walls, window coverings and beds. Two Blaine teenagers were later caught after surveillance footage was recovered at the scene.
“It turned a very safe place for the campers into a place that someone vandalized and hurt,” said Contezac. “What we carry with us as human beings when our safe space is intruded, that’s something that you can’t add up on an insurance claim on how that impacts a camper’s sense of security. There’s a human impact beyond the damage to the building.”
Contezac said the community stepped in to help Lions Camp Horizon recover from the vandalism with volunteers and monetary support.
New improvements around the campus have made this summer at Lions Camp Horizon even more enjoyable than before.
Windermere Real Estate paved the area surrounding the camp’s firepit during their community service day this June, making it more accessible for people using wheelchairs and walkers. They also installed bed risers in the dorms, lifting mattresses six inches to support campers.
“For some campers, that six-inch difference makes it so they can get in and out by themselves or with one person assisting them instead of two,” Contezac said. “It increases their dignity and independence.”
Other local businesses that gave their support include Cadman Inc., Cowden Gravel & Ready Mix, Lil Scoop Bobcat Inc., Mt. Baker Mobile Mixing, LLC, Peterson Construction and Smith Gardens.
In addition, nine volunteers from the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps stayed at Lions Camp Horizon for eight weeks before the summer season started to repaint dorms, replace handrails and renovate sidewalks.
“The level of volunteerism that happens at Lions Camp Horizon is really cool to see,” Contezac said.