Camp Up is a very special camp held every summer at Camp Istrouma.
“We normally do it for a week but when Covid hit last year, it had already booked up. Since Covid has lifted a little bit now, we were only able to get it for a weekend this year” said co-owner of Camp Up Leslie Wascom.
Wascom is an AP teacher and Jessica Bonura, the other co-owner of Camp Up, is a special education teacher and mother to a child with Down Syndrome. The duo came up with Camp Up six years ago and now, every single camp they put on has a waiting list. Live Oak High school in Livingston Parish has a Reach club where children help those with special needs. Kids from the Reach club serve as counselors at Camp Up.
What sets this camp apart from all the others is that Camp Up is for children with special needs.
“Bella is wheelchair bound. She’s been diagnosed with genetic disorder. She can’t walk. She’s can’t talk,” said Bella’s mom Brittney Mixon.
“This camp is for them. This camp is for the special needs community. It’s for the kids with disabilities and they come out here and have a blast,” said TJ Martinez, Mylie Grace’s dad.
But it’s not just for children with special needs. Everyone is welcome. For example, Mylie Grace is one of three sisters. She has Down Syndrome but Camp Up allows her other two sisters to be a part of this weekend with her.
“It means a lot because I get to see her and how she’s doing,” said Mylie Grace’s older sister Morgan Martinez. “It makes me feel like she’s really accepted here and it’s like her own place to be.”
This summer, 50 children took part in Camp Up during Father’s Day weekend and got an experience of a lifetime, like 9-yr-old Bella Mixon, but her mom admits she has probably taken away more from Camp Up than her daughter.
“People actually care. People care about my daughter. People love my daughter, and I was so fearful that she would be bullied and things would happen to her and I wouldn’t know because she’s nonverbal and Camp Up and the counselors just opened my eyes that people actually care,” said Mixon.
As soon as Bella’s parents left, she changed into her bathing suit and stuck her legs in the pool. Her excitement was one that can’t be put into words. Just like her, many young girls had the time of their lives in the pool simply enjoying a Louisiana summer day.
At lunch time, everyone took a break, reloaded and it was back to having fun.
“We are more the same than we are different and we have to let them go and that’s how we build an inclusive community,” said Bonura.
While some of the children cannot talk, sometimes actions do speak louder than words and taking it all in for the two co-owners of Camp Up, was beyond overwhelming.
“Seeing that God chose us to do this, it can be anybody and why he picked us, I don’t know but it means the world to us because it really could be anybody. It’s just stepping out in faith and doing what God tells you to do and He will provide the help and the friendships and the students to come and the campers and even the weather,” said Wascom.
“We were supposed to be in a tropical storm,” said Bonura.
“We prayed this weather away,” said Wascom.
“Thank you. I tell them, ‘Thank you and we love you guys.’ This is one of the best things for special needs kids, special needs community and you do it right. You know how to make these kids a part of the community, the school, everything out here so it means everything to us,” said Martinez.
“We couldn’t imagine our lives without them, like their condition doesn’t define our family,” said Mixon. “They changed our lives with Bella. They made us see Bella can do things.”
In two more years, Bella’s brother, who was diagnosed with the exact same thing as his sister, will also be headed to Camp Up as will former counselor Alaina Bennett’s newborn baby boy, meaning that waiting list is only going to get longer as two ladies have turned what some would say is impossible into possible!