St. Clair ShoresJuly 31, 2013
Golf outing to benefit Special Needs Program in St. Clair Shores
By Christian Davis
C & G Sports Writer
ST. CLAIR SHORES — Jamie Harbison, supervisor of the St. Clair Shores Special Needs Program, calls it the ‘aha moment.’
The moment when a counselor connects with a camper, and a mutual feeling of admiration and friendship is formed.
“Even on the really challenging days, it makes up for it when you have that moment and that bonding,” Harbison said July 17 as campers made arts and crafts at the Veterans Memorial Park in St. Clair Shores.
Harbison, who’s been with the program since 2004, said her moment came that first summer.
“The first couple of days, I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ Then, when the next week came and the campers came back, I had a girl that was blind and in a wheelchair. She heard me walk through the gate and yelled, ‘Hi Ms. Jamie!’ That’s the moment. I love it,” she said.
The program has been in place since 1997 and started by Parks and Recreation Director Greg Esler.
“I was motivated by the outcry from the residents, so then I got this team together to make it happen,” Esler said. “It’s one of the only programs in the state for a municipality. We are licensed, and it’s one of the best programs in the state, from listening to the people that talk about it.”
It started as a nine-week program, but has grown into a year-long journey, offering opportunities for the campers to join different sporting leagues, like softball and basketball.
“I used to get so depressed when the program was over in August,” Esler said. “They’re like great friends, and you know you’re making a difference. Now, the last day of camp (in the summer) isn’t so bad because we know we have more games to play.”
The program also relies heavily on the community for support, and Esler and Harbison said it’s been doing well.
A handful of fundraising events take place during the year to help provide things like trips to the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Tigers games and more.
The next fundraiser is a golf outing Aug. 7 at the St. Clair Shores Golf Club.
The scramble starts at 8 a.m. and is $100 per person, which includes breakfast, a steak dinner and prizes.
“The community has been fabulous in helping us out. I think that’s what is great about this program; it’s the whole community,” Esler said. “It might be the proudest thing that we’ve accomplished. It’s been a first-rate program since the word ‘go.’”
Jordan Obrecht, 25, who has been in the program for more than a decade, said his favorite parts include hanging out with friends and counselors, along with trips to the pool.
“I enjoy it, and I hope they keep running it,” he said, while also noting that he enjoys hanging out with his counselor Zach Morgan. “I like them all a lot; they’re friendly people. Just all the counselors are very friendly people.”
Harbison said there are 26 members of the staff and 100 members in the program, with 50 at a time rotating every week in camp to keep a 2:1 ratio of campers and counselors.
“The counselors learn a lot from the campers, to be honest,” Harbison said.
Esler said he’s learned a thing or two, as well.
“Watching them in the pool or playing kickball, just seeing the smiles on their faces is pretty powerful. The one thing I do is if I’m maybe not having the greatest day in the world, I go down to the park, and in spending five minutes with these kids, my mood has changed dramatically,” he said. “We have one boy that has never seen and has seizures, and he never complains. He’s always smiling. You appreciate what you have.”
For more information on the golf outing, contact Tom Mehl at (586) 445-5350 or Rob Spinazzola at (586) 294-2000.
The Special Needs Program is for boys and girls between the ages of 5-26 and open to all. The program accepts campers who are semi-independent, mildly cognitive or emotionally cognitive.
For more information on the Special Needs Program and fees, call (586) 445-5350.