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Summer Camps and Activities 2021: Camp Wings Of Friendship Offering Free, Ability-Inclusive Summer Fun



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Camp Wings of Friendship is soaring to new heights with its much-anticipated eight-week summer program coming this June.

The camp was established by Dylan’s Wings of Change, a local nonprofit foundation that honors the life of first grade student Dylan Hockley, who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012.

The group’s mission includes supporting children with autism and related conditions. In 2015, Dylan’s Wings of Change founded its Wingman program to provide social and emotional learning opportunities for all children, and it has grown to also help adults with professional development.

Camp Wings of Friendship is run in partnership with The Friendship Journey, based in Florida, which works to unite individuals of all abilities through equitable opportunities and lasting friendships.

Robb Armstrong, Wingman Master Trainer for Dylan’s Wings of Change, and Samantha Novick, president of The Friendship Journey, are co-directors for Camp Wings of Friendship.

Armstrong said the program was created last year when the COVID-19 pandemic began shutting down in-person gatherings.

“We started up in March last year working with The Friendship Journey. They reached out to us previously, and we were planning on going down there just to run some activities for them as Wingmen for their Student Leader Council… and the world shut down a bit and we started doing virtual programming for their population,” Armstrong said.

It soon became apparent that the summer of 2020 would not offer the opportunity for any in-person camps, so the two groups decided to make the best of the situation.

“We just kind of leaned in and started focusing on ‘How do we take all the best parts of camp and bring it to a virtual platform?’” Armstrong said about the collaboration when forming Camp Wings of Friendship.

‘Hours Of Love And Friendship’

The virtual summer camp took place over the course of eight weeks with three sessions a day for five days a week.

Armstrong said they had individuals ranging in age from 14 to 47 take part in the program.

Camp Wings of Friendship had directors leading a variety of hands-on activities — such as cooking, art, and fitness — much like a traditional camp would do.

For those lessons, everyone was given the option of following along if they wanted to, and given a list of what they would need ahead of time.

“If they are willing and wanting, they can be working along with the activity directors as they go... They are always welcome to just sit and watch or participate as much or as little as they would like,” Armstrong explained.

Campers went on weekly virtual field trips, including to a farm where they could see animals, to see a horseshoe blacksmith work, and to tour a facility in Florida that had a climbing wall. There was even a scuba instructor who took them underwater for a dive in a lake.

All the while, campers were able to talk with their tour guides and ask questions.

“The biggest thing that we strive for is to… make sure that it doesn’t feel like you are just sitting at a computer. It should be an interactive experience,” Armstrong said. “We really strive to make it as much of that as possible, providing an escape outside of your four walls.”

Camp Wings of Friendship also had special guests give thought-provoking presentations to the group.

Three influential speakers who took part last summer were James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham, directors of the 2020 documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, and disability rights activist Judith “Judy” Heumann, a key figure in the film.

Crip Camp chronicled the groundbreaking story of how a summer camp in upstate New York in the 1970s called Camp Jened fostered teens and adults of different abilities to feel accepted, and how it launched many individuals into activism, where they went on to fight for accessibility legislation.

Armstrong said that Camp Wings of Friendship was very much inspired by the documentary.

“It was a camp where the kids that were labeled as ‘different’ for the rest of the year were able to go and just be themselves and… have those authentic conversations. It’s a phenomenal documentary,” Armstrong said.

Much like at Camp Jened, Camp Wings of Friendship also focused on giving participants the opportunity to express themselves authentically and connect with others socially.

“We ask the questions that aren’t being asked often, like ‘What’s the difference between equity and equality? What does inclusion look like? How do you fit in? What are some of the questions people ask you all the time that drive you nuts or what do you wish people would know?’ [We’re] really trying to help everyone realize they have a voice that deserves to be heard,” Armstrong explained.

Those conversations begin in small groups to allow everyone to feel comfortable sharing before joining the main group to continue the open dialogue.

Through these engaging and judgement-free talks, friendships with people develop and so does the confidence the campers have in themselves.

“We had a lot of participants that realized that they can be advocates and they want to lean into that over the course of last summer,” Armstrong said.

Camp Wings of Friendship’s first summer program drew such a positive response from participants that the group decided to run more initiatives that fall and winter.

According to a December 2020 press release, “Since March of 2020, they have led 23 weeks of scheduled activities, 161 days of connection, and over 200 hours of love and friendship.”

The year ended with a special showcase, made possible with the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, which can be found on YouTube; search “Camp Wings of Friendship Showcase.”

A shortened spring session is planned for April before the full summer program starts.

Summer 2021

Armstrong anticipates the Camp Wings of Friendship’s summer offering will be similar to last year’s program in that it will span eight weeks, from June 21 to August 13, and have three sessions a day for five days a week.

Each of the three sessions will be an hour long and will be staggered throughout the day: tentatively at noon, 2 pm, and 4 pm. While it is not mandatory to attend every session, it is encouraged.

The virtual summer camp experience is free to all who wish to participate, and it is run completely by volunteers.

“Over the course of the summer we ask our participants to do a fundraiser with us to help offset the costs. Luckily, we are able to pull it off as a completely volunteer organization. All of our activity directors are donating their time and their services,” Armstrong said.

Volunteers are also inclusive to all abilities.

The Broward Center has confirmed it will be working with the camp again to create another showcase.

What that will look like in the end is yet to be seen, as it will come from the community of campers.

“Our whole push is that this is not our program. We are just the facilitators,” Armstrong said of Camp Wings of Friendship. “We are going to let our participants inform what they want and how this is going to look. With that in mind, it is kind of eternally evolving.”

Registration is open for Camp Wings of Friendship and people can sign up online by filling out a form on The Friendship Journey’s website, thefriendshipjourney.org.

For more information about Dylan’s Wings of Change and Camp Wings of Friendship, visit dylanswingsofchange.org.

Teens and adults of all abilities virtually attended Camp Wings of Friendship, created by Dylan’s Wings of Change and The Friendship Journey. The eight-week program will be offered again from June 21 to August 13, and will have three sessions a day, five days a week. —photos courtesy Robb Armstrong
Camp Wings of Friendship counselor and ambassador Daniel Tabares smiles while displaying the American Sign Language gesture for “I love you” with both hands.
Camp Wings of Friendship participant Erin Achmad poses in her Wonder Woman outfit.
Julia Solski holds up a colorful drawing that reads “Wings of Friendship.”
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