Last month, Camp Stand By Me hosted a ribbon cutting for a new learning center on its Vaughn Bay Easter Seals Washington property. Courtesy photo

For more than 35 years, Easter Seals Camp Stand By Me on Vaughn Bay has served people with special needs.

According to Director Joshua Mayer, the camp serves about 450 campers a year from throughout Washington and beyond.

“The majority of the people we serve are from this area and around the state, but we get campers from all across the U.S. because we’re one of the few camps that focus on providing service to people with severe disabilities,” Mayer said.

“For example, this is the place where burn victims have been able to come, the place where people with pervasive developmental delays such as no speech, no sight or very low sensory input can come and experience nature,” he said.

The natural setting and the dedicated staff provide a unique experience for people with disabilities, he added.

The camp tries to maintain a two-to-one volunteer-to-camper ratio. “So if we have 60 campers, we have about 30 staff counselors,” Mayer said.

“Our commitment is to give people with disabilities –– often with severe disabilities –– a true outdoor experience,” he said.

Activities include swimming, horseback riding, games, canoeing, arts and crafts, archery and other pastimes, both indoors and outdoors. “It’s a long list,” Mayer said.

In December, the camp added yet another option: It opened a new Nature Learning Center in a 500-square-foot yurt.

By next spring, the yurt will be filled with kiosks that include a variety of hands-on, nature-oriented displays.

The yurt “isn’t really huge, but it can hold a lot of people,” Mayer said.

He and his staff plan to build displays such as an aviary center and an aquatic wildlife center and similar displays that will enable campers to learn more about the flora and fauna they encounter outdoors at Camp Stand By Me.

“We haven’t ever had a really focused way to teach our campers about what they’re seeing when they’re outdoors here at camp,” Mayer said.

“They can’t always walk out into the forest to touch a plant or see a bird up close, so we’re going to bring some of those things into the yurt, so they can get up close and personal with them.

“We want to create an indoor space dedicated to exhibits that will bring that environment even closer and give a more sensory focus,” he said.

He added that after experiencing the displays in the yurt, when the campers go outside and see something, they’ll know what it is.

“For many of them, even when they’re in this incredible setting, they can’t get close enough to a bird to see what it is. So this will increase their direct experience with the natural environment,” he said.

For a camper who’s blind and in a wheelchair, touch may be the main sensory mode. “So we want them to be able to feel something, touch something like feathers or stuffed versions of animals,” he added.

Mayer was quick to credit local resident Dick Day with volunteering his time as project manager in building the yurt. “We gave him a lifetime swim pass to the pool as a thank you for the work he did on this project,” Mayer said.

The camp staff is in the early stages of designing the exhibits for the new yurt and they welcome community input.

“There are a lot of people in our community who are experts in the environment,” Mayer said. “People who are foresters or birders and others who have a perspective they want to share with us and we welcome their help in designing the displays.”

Although the camp has seed money for purchasing the new displays, there is always a need for additional funds and also for camp volunteers.

“We need more individuals and organizations to donate funds and to donate their time,” Mayer said.

For information, visit wa.easterseals.com or call (253) 884-2722.

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