ALLENDALE, Mich. — It’s an 80-degree day in Ottawa County. The sun is beating down on the pavement outside Grand Valley State University’s fieldhouse. It’s the perfect day for a water fight.
With the blowing of a whistle, firefighters from the Allendale Fire Department turn on their water cannons. Campers from Mary Free Bed’s Junior Wheelchair Sports Camp roll themselves quickly toward dozens of buckets they’ll fill with water and dump all over each other.
This celebration marks the end of the camp each year. It’s a day the campers, volunteers, instructors, and firefighters all look forward to. Brad Dion knows first hand.
“This camp is the first thing that goes into my calendar every year. I actually build my whole summer around this calendar to make sure I’m here, local, and available to be here at this camp,” said Dion, who describes every day of the camp as being like Christmas morning.
Dion, who is in a wheelchair, has come to this camp for 28 years. He started out as a seven-year-old camper. When he graduated high school he started volunteering at the camp. Now, he’s an instructor. He knows how meaningful the camp is to every kid who comes through the door.
“Think about it like this, kids are in their classrooms. They’re probably the only one in their class that may have a disability at all and for this week these kids come, and they’re surrounded by peers, and adults with disabilities as well and for this one week, it is a safe haven where they are the norm,” he said.
“Everything is equal. It’s equal playing fields. The excuses don’t work, and these kids are extremely competitive, and they get to be competitive against kids just like themselves.”
The camp is open to kids ages 7 to 18. They get to enjoy basketball, cycling, dodgeball, football, frisbee golf, handball, kayaking, lacrosse, sled hockey, softball, and tennis.
“It’s really fun,” said 12-year-old camper Carson Bush.
“There are tons of sports you can play and it’s just really fun and I just really like it here. It’s one of my favorite places.”
Getting on the court is the best part of the whole experience for 13-year-old Ben Perkins, who is in his first year at the camp.
“It’s just fun knowing that you can play basketball and you don’t need feet,” he said.
Dion has taken the lessons he learned as a kid at this camp and applied those to what he preaches as an instructor. He says he gets a lot of joy out of seeing kids learn that they can, in fact, play sports.
“I push these kids and I push their boundary line, and when they finally meet a goal or do it, you see the joy and the satisfaction. They’re like ‘You’re right. I can do it,’” he said.
“It can make a dramatic impact on kids’ lives, like myself. To this day I’m still competing in wheelchair tennis. Because of this camp, I found a love for tennis that I never knew I had.”
To learn more about Mary Free Bed’s Adaptive Sports Program, visit their website.
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