Great heights

At Camp of Champs — seven miles north of Park Rapids, Minn. — campers are challenged to break out of their comfort zones.

And for many kids here, there’s nothing more uncomfortable than standing on a platform 35 feet off the ground.

Indeed, trying out the camp’s challenge course (an impressive high and low ropes course and zip line) is an integral part of the camp curriculum.

Campers learn to rely on each other for physical and emotional support on the ropes course as well as while preparing meals, doing chores and joining in many other camp activities.

It’s all pretty impressive, especially when you consider that the camp caters to children who face a surprising array of special needs.

Roughly 50 percent of campers here — ages 9 to 17 — were adopted or are in foster care. Others may have problems with behavioral and/or social issues or suffer from post-traumatic stress.

Other special needs may include (but are not limited to) learning disabilities, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, anxiety and depression, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, Down syndrome and/or attachment disorders.

No matter why they’re at camp, however, kids here are included in activities designed to help them with communication, trust, boundaries/self-control, transition skills, teamwork, self-advocacy, confidence and respect.

“It’s not like any camp you’ve ever been to,” said Cece, a 14-year-old longtime camper from Roseville who attended a 2017 session. “It’s OK to talk about personal and deep things. It’s a safe place to be. You get a lot of support here.”

Caliyah, 12, of Bemidji, who was adopted at age 8, has been attending the camp for three years.

“It’s just a really good camp,” she said. “I love coming every year.”

Last summer Caliyah came close to completing the Leap of Faith, a solo goal-setting challenge on the ropes course. During the leap, campers climb to the top of a utility pole 25 feet off the ground, stand up and regain their balance and then jump out to grasp a trapeze bar 5 feet away. Before they make the leap, they must set a personal goal.

Despite the security of safety harnesses and ropes, it isn’t easy.

“I touched the bar and almost got it,” Caliyah said with a smile. “And I almost didn’t do it.”

How it all began

Camp of Champs was founded in 2006 by camp directors Travis Guida and Sarah Coumbe-Guida of Bemidji, both special education teachers.

The couple adopted four of their seven children out of the foster care system and found themselves struggling with their children’s anger and attachment issues.

They met other adoptive families dealing with similar issues and saw a need for a summer camp environment in which children could meet other children going through similar circumstances and develop important life skills, such as self-regulation, conflict resolution, service learning and growing positive relationships.

The Guidas also separately offer team-building activities for groups, organizations and businesses through their Character Challenge Adventure Park.

Coumbe-Guida spent 14 years as a special education teacher at Cass Lake-Bena Elementary School, located on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. In 2011, she was nominated for Minnesota Teacher of the Year. Travis Guida formerly taught at Bemidji High School.

Every year, the camp’s curriculum is modified to meet each youth’s special needs and age.

One parent testimonial about the 2017 camp reads: “I cannot adequately tell you in words how thankful I am for the Camp of Champs. Each year we see such tremendous growth in our daughter. Without this camp, she would not be where she is today.”

A day in the life

Each month about 100 campers attend Camp of Champs, which boasts a 4-to-1 camper-to-staff ratio, thanks to nearly 40 staff members, plus a full-time nurse.

Staff, who have backgrounds in education, social work, psychology and nursing, are qualified to work with special needs campers.

Camp is held for one- and two-week sessions June through August at Eagle Beach Resort on Eagle Lake. Coumbe-Guida and Guida also help manage the adjacent small family resort, owned by Sarah Coumbe-Guida’s mother, Jan Coumbe.

Cell phones are prohibited at camp. Every minute of the day is scheduled with programming, and safety is the top priority.

Some campers suffer from anxiety and depression, along with other underlying behavioral challenges, so there can be disruption and conflicts throughout the day.

Activities include sandlot volleyball, basketball, tennis, shuffleboard, tetherball, horseshoes, ping pong, Frisbee golf, crafts, kayaking/canoeing and fishing.

Kids have access to multiple sand playground areas, 1,000 feet of sandy beach and a heated pool and wading pool. Special events include contests and team challenges as well as weekend movie nights and campfires.

Camp is a place where kids can work together to find the coping skills they need before returning to home and school, Guida said.

When the one- or two-week camp experience is over, that doesn’t mean the support ends. Coumbe-Guida said camp families are provided with follow-up information and unlimited email support throughout the year to help with behavioral strategies, IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) and other resources.

“We don’t pretend we have all the answers,” Travis Guida said. “Our goal is to support families.”

Jodie Tweed is a freelance writer living in Pequot Lakes.