By Wesley P. Hester Times-Dispatch Staff Writer
Published: August 13, 2009
Reluctantly at first, Krystal Alexander rode a horse for the first time this week at Camp Baker.
"I was so scared, I couldn't put my leg over the horse," said Alexander, 18, of Richmond, who has cerebral palsy.
"But you did it, didn't you?" added counselor Erin Mulry, who came from Wales this summer for the opportunity to work at the camp for children and teenagers with disabilities.
"Yeah, and I wasn't really scared, either," said Alexander, changing her tune slightly as she recalled her ride atop Joey, the veteran Camp Baker horse from a neighboring farm.
Camp Baker, a 22-acre site off Beach Road in Chesterfield County, has been providing a recreational outlet for children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities since the 1920s.
The property is owned by the county but has been operated by Greater Richmond ARC, the nonprofit group formerly known as the Association for Retarded Citizens, for 49 years.
Today, as the final group of campers for this summer says farewell, the camp will dedicate $650,000 worth of new facilities, including an amphitheater, a counselors' bunk house, and a dining hall expansion, financed with state money and a donation from one happy camper's family.
During the past nine weeks, 400 disabled campers have come from across Virginia and as far as New Mexico for a rare opportunity to spend a week or two away from home, forging bonds and trying new things.
Jennifer Post, a 19-year-old from Chesterfield, said she has been attending the camp for "so long I lost count."
She said she most enjoys making new friends, and her hope is that before she leaves today, she can "make the biggest splash at the pool and make the loudest song ever."
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Campers vary in age from 5 to 89, with most toward the lower end of the range.
They eat together, bunk together, swim, dance and attend barbecues and talent shows. Nature hikes, music sessions, and arts and crafts also are on the daily agenda.
"On any given day, we have 100 people with disabilities," said Shirley O'Brien, the camp director. "We take individuals who need all levels of care -- from mild disabilities to profound disabilities."
A highlight for many campers is horseback riding, thanks to Sonny Applewhite, a retired Chesterfield police captain who has been offering his 60-acre farm and horses since the 1960s.
Ellis Bingham, known as "Bing" among campers, has been attending Camp Baker for five summers. The 18-year-old has cerebral palsy and motors around camp in his power wheelchair.
"As a parent, you want your child to be able to experience everything to the fullest of their ability," said his mother, Anna Bingham. "It's very fulfilling, because I know he's having a good time and getting to do things he doesn't get to do on a day-to-day basis. He gets to meet new people and cool counselors and experience camp just like other kids."