Swimming is one of the main attractions during the summer at Camp I Am Special, and this year will be extra special with the opening of a new aquatic center.

Bishop John Snyder dedicates the new Rotary Club of Deerwood Abigail’s Joy Camp I Am Special Aquatic Center

The “Rotary Club of Deerwood Abigail’s Joy Camp I Am Special Aquatic Center” was dedicated by the Camp’s founder, Bishop John J. Snyder, on April 11 and has its first event, the Faith and Sharing Retreat, May 20-24. The 6-day summer camps will run from June 10 through August 5.

“It’s amazing,” said Rebecca Aleman, director of the Disabilities Ministry and Camp I Am Special. “It’s going to accommodate so many needs for our ministry. We focus on the abilities of each person and adapt everything to their needs including swimming. So, this is going to be great.”

The new pool is specially designed for people with disabilities, including an ADA compliant, graduated entry ramp so that campers in specially designed “water wheelchairs” can roll right into the pool instead of being hoisted on a lift.

There are also special water features, such as bubblers and deck jets for campers with sensory-related issues. The pool is mostly shallow with support bars and social steps that can be used to enter the pool or sit in the water. Nearby are fully accessible restrooms with showers and a covered pavilion with picnic tables.

Since 1983, Camp I Am Special has provided a summer camp experience for children and adults with physical, mental, and developmental disabilities, providing activities that include crafts, talent shows, and swimming. It is made possible through private funding and in-kind donations, as well as an army of volunteers.

Rebecca Aleman, Camp I Am Special director, assists campers Zachary Campbell
and Destiny Belanger with cutting the ribbon at the dedication ceremony. (Photo by St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband)

The camp can accommodate 32 campers each week. Every camper is assigned a “buddy,” a volunteer high school student, who is responsible for caring for the camper 24/7, which includes making sure they have fun.

Accredited by the American Camp Association, the camp has 25 staff members, including medical personnel who care for the special needs of the campers, Aleman said.

The actual cost of the camps is approximately $1,700 per person, but Catholic Charities gives every Camper a scholarship that drops the cost to $725, Aleman said. The money for scholarships comes from fundraisers, grants, and donations from parish groups, the Knights of Columbus, the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, individuals and foundations.

Also, lunches and dinners for all the camps are donated and served by volunteers, Aleman said. Groups provide a meal for 100, which includes campers, buddies, and staff.

Lauren Weedon Hopkins, regional director of Catholic Charities Jacksonville, addresses the attendees during the dedication ceremony

“The donated meals are one of our greatest needs,” Aleman said.

“For some of our campers, this is the only time they get to swim because it’s so challenging to get in and out of the pool,” said Lauren Weedon Hopkins, regional director of Catholic Charities Jacksonville.

Though it was popular with the campers, the old swimming pool was leaking, and beyond repair, Hopkins said. “We tried patching it, but that just wasn’t working.” So, two years ago Catholic Charities Jacksonville decided to launch a capital campaign, led by volunteer Kathy Devine, which raised more than $1.1 million.

The main sponsors were the Rotary Club of Deerwood, and Ed and Marlene White of Auld & White Constructors LLC, who named it Abigail’s Joy in honor of their granddaughter. The Delores Barr Weaver Fund donated the money for the Ability Pool, and the Chartrand Family gave the funding for the shaded pavilion.

Others have donated $100 or $250 for brick pavers for the Friendship Walk that borders the entry inside the pool complex.

Lauren Weedon Hopkins, Bishop John Snyder and Catholic Charities board member, Lisa Hayes pose for a photo following the dedication. (Photo by St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband)

“Our pool is very safe and welcoming and designed with our campers in mind. It’s going to be incredible,” Hopkins said. “No one is going to want to get out!” The pool design was done by Heather Baxter of WET Engineering, Inc. and was provided as an in-kind donation. She met with Aleman and other camp staff early in the design process, and Baxter created a pool that meets all of their needs.

For more information on how you can donate and volunteer at Camp I Am Special, call the Camp office at (904) 230-7447 or the Jacksonville Regional Office of Catholic Charities at (904) 899-5500.