“Nothing about us, without us,” is a mantra that was started with the Disability Rights movement. As the staff of Camp Sunshine heard this phrase echoing in the voices of disability advocates, we began to wonder how we could adopt the mantra for our organization. This concept was championed by advocates like Judy Huemann, a pioneer of the movement, whose work is quite evident in the documentary Crip Camp, and whose advocacy led to the passage of the ADA. The staff of the Disability Network Southwest Michigan also regularly hosts trainings that have helped us better understand neurodiversity and ableism.
As the Camp Sunshine staff and board started to learn more about disability rights and disability justice, it became apparent that Camp Sunshine had been acting without the input of our own audience: our campers. At the end of 2021, after a conversation with our friends at Special Olympics, we knew that one way to adopt this mantra was to develop a Camper Advisory Council.
The Council consists of seven campers who were selected by the Camp Sunshine staff to serve as leaders and deciders, as well as the program manager and executive director. The council meets monthly via Zoom, and has advised staff on many matters, from programming to the relationships established with counselors. “Without a doubt, this is the best hour of the month!” shares Executive Director, Kathy Rohlman. “The information that we gather from our campers helps us to train our volunteers and to remember to center the voice of our campers in all that we do.”
Council members include both longtime and more recent campers. Council member Amanda Kragt shared what she loves about the council: “I love seeing my friends at camp! I love to hang with my friends. The Advisory Board gives me strength!”
Zach Aalderink participates in the Camper Advisory Council, which has given him a place to become an advocate and fundraiser for Camp Sunshine! He recently worked with a local business owner (Logan Sewell of Whit’s Frozen Custard Holland) to create a first-ever fundraising partnership to generate funds and awareness for Camp Sunshine! He also looks forward to being a more hands-on volunteer at Camp Sunshine: “Grow[ing] community and ability to help.”
Kyle Bueche, a Calvin University Ready for Life student and Camp Henry regular loves the practical experience of Advisory Council: “[Discussing what] we can do to make Camp Sunshine better, recognize the Camp Sunshine community and…be able to apply what we’re doing to the real world…I feel like I can show what I’m capable of.”
As fortieth season of Camp Sunshine begins, we begin with a renewed focus and new understanding of what makes Camp Sunshine such a special place, a place that holds space for every participant, living into our vision both internally and externally: “To make the world outside of Camp Sunshine a more affirming and inclusive place by inspiring agents of change with transforming experiences and relationships.”