Camp offers three days of adventure for kids with disabilities

SNOHOMISH – Kayla Wheeler, 11, dreams about training service dogs with her best friend. She may act and sing on the side as well.

She’s outspoken and wears a T-shirt that reads: “OK. I’M PERFECT. NOW STOP STARING.”

And she loves having a good time.

“My disability? Missing limbs,” she explains simply.

Kayla was busy fishing, playing in the water and eating big meals last week at Flowing Lake County Park northeast of Snohomish.

Kayla was among 25 children who attended Camp ACCESS, a summer sports camp for children with disabilities. The camp took place from Thursday through Saturday.

Campers tried a variety of sports, such as kayaking, basketball and softball. They were just being children. And their smiles in turn made about 50 volunteers happy.

The annual camp aims to teach campers to expand their boundaries and build confidence, Ernie Butler, the camp director, said.

“You can’t confuse disability with inability,” Butler said.

Butler, an Air Force veteran, has been in a wheelchair since he survived a skydiving accident in France in 1995. He suffered about 200 fractures and went through a lengthy medical treatment.

But it didn’t take away his love for sports. While recovering from his injuries, Butler traveled to Idaho to serve as an athletic coach for children with disabilities.

That inspired Butler to start Camp ACCESS in Snohomish County in 2001.

His friends have volunteered their time and energy for the camp. Generous sponsors – local businesses and organizations – have kept the camp free for children.

“I love this. I really love this,” said Jane Magdanz, who has volunteered since the camp’s inception.

Magdanz of Snohomish said she and her husband, Joe Parke, who both work for the Boeing Co., come to the camp for one reason: to see children smile.

“We’ve got to feed the soul,” Magdanz said.

Butler’s daughter, Tia, has helped the camp since she was 10. Now 16, Tia said the camp has helped her become more accepting of people regardless of their differences.

When her father had the accident, she was too young to know how his injuries would affect his life and family, Tia said. But now she sees how the incident led him to reach out to children with disabilities.

“I think his accident was one of the best things that could’ve ever happened to him,” Tia said. “It really makes me feel proud that he’s my dad.”

The camp has been held at a public park so people can see how campers deal with their disabilities, camp organizers said.

This year, Butler and four other adults who are in wheelchairs served as camp coaches.

Campers were teamed up with buddies from local high schools. Many high school students sign up for the camp to earn community service hours. Some of them keep coming back as they see the difference that they can make in children’s lives.

Kayla, born missing her right arm and both legs, moved around the park in an electric wheelchair.

She fished with her best friend, McKenna Dahl, 11, of Arlington. McKenna has muscle loss in her left arm and legs, which makes her tire easily.

Kayla and McKenna hung out with Megan Kirchgasler and Kestle Olson, both 17 years old.

Megan and Kestle attend Archbishop Murphy High School in Mill Creek, where they don’t get to spend time with children with disabilities.

At first Megan said she was nervous about being around campers who have severe disabilities.

At the camp, Megan and Kestle learned a few things about the girls: Kayla and McKenna are active and fearless. They are good at fishing. They like having sleepovers just like any other girls.

Her anxiety quickly disappeared, Megan said.

“It’s been easy,” she said.

“What’s easy?” Kayla asked.

“Hanging out with you,” Megan said.

Reporter Yoshiaki Nohara: 425-339-3029 or ynohara@heraldnet.com.

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