The Hospital for Special Care’s camp for children with physical disabilities is held at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford.
By Ronni Newton
What began as an idea at the kitchen table of Janeace Slifka has blossomed into a camp that has a quarter century of history of providing an enjoyable and active camp experience for hundreds of children with physical disabilities.
This week, the Ivan Lendl Adaptive Sports Camp will celebrate its 25th anniversary year with a fun-filled program at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford.
Back in the early 90s, Slifka was frustrated because her older son [Scott, now mayor of West Hartford] was having fun going off to camp while there was virtually nothing available for her other son who was in a wheelchair. “The impetus for this camp was Scott going off to Notre Dame or to North Carolina for basketball camp while Jon was sitting home,” Slifka said.
Jonathan Slifka, who now serves as Governor Malloy’s liaison to the disability community, was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.
Jonathan had been – literally – a poster child for the March of Dimes in 1988, and with him on the poster was tennis star Ivan Lendl. Janeace had kept up a relationship with Lendl, and he agreed to support her idea and help raise funds for what became the northeast’s first wheelchair camp.
Janeace ran the camp herself for several years, but when she was planning a move to Florida she sought help from the Hospital for Special Care (HSC) in New Britain. “We are a chronic disease hospital and we already had an adaptive sports program,” said HSC’s Vice President for External Relations Jason Jakubowski. “We’re a perfect fit.”
HSC took over the management of the camp, and because of the success of the fundraising efforts the camp continues to be free to anyone who attends, Jakubowski said. A majority of the funds to support the camp are raised through the Ivan Lendl Golf Classic, which this year was held at Wethersfield Country Club. Corporate donations, private sponsorships, and the “sponsor a camper” program provide the remainder of the funds, Jakubowski said. Janet Connolly, a recreation therapist who runs the adaptive sports program at HSC, serves as camp director.
Janeace is still very much involved. “She’s still there like she was on day one. She’s our rock,” Jakubowski said.
This year there are 40 campers, ages 6-19, from five different states, all enjoying a variety of sports including tennis, swimming, and dance. “We’ve had just about any sport you can imagine including basketball, track and field, golf, sled hockey, bowling, rugby, and even puppetry,” said Janeace. “If there’s a sport out there they try to play it.”
It used to be called a wheelchair camp, but now is called an “adaptive” camp because some of the campers use walkers. Their disabilities have are the result of a variety of factors, including cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and injuries.
Jakubowski said that just like any camp, the experience focuses on a combination of learning new skills and having fun. “They not only develop physically but there’s also a social component,” he said.
“All of the counselors are wheelchair athletes. They are great role models,” said Janeace. “When we started, there was nothing like this in the area.”
She was so happy to see how Jonathan changed when he first attended the camp, after years of being excluded from many activities, including birthday parties, because of accessibility.
Many of the campers take on the role of mentor and come back as counselors year after year, including Jonathan who even used it as a venue for another special event.
“When he proposed to his wife he did it at the last day of camp. He got out of his chair and onto his knee and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Janeace said. “He was the first one of the campers to go to college, to get married. It’s good for them to see normal,” she said.
“The biggest thing is self esteem. It’s different now than it was [when we first started], but they just want to be like the other kids,” Janeace said, but many are the only one at their school in a wheelchair.
And the fun – and the many benefits – extend to the volunteers as well. Many are high school and college students from the area, and they also continue to come back for years and years.
“The kids are great. They keep you coming back and when they’re happy about something and succeed it makes you feel great,” said Francesca Flynn, who has been volunteering for seven years. Her mother works at HSC, and this year there are five of her family members volunteering.
The camp has always been held in West Hartford; for the first three years it was held at the University of Hartford and since then has been at the University of Saint Joseph. Jakubowski said that USJ is really an ideal location because all of the athletic facilities are in one area.
The Slifkas have benefitted greatly from the relationship with HSC, and Jakubowski is thankful to the family for their years of supporting the hospital as well. Jonathan was the keynote speaker at their annual meeting last year, Jakubowski said.
“It’s amazing to me that this started with a mother trying to do something nice for her son and it’s turned into something that’s helped hundreds of kids,” said Jakubowski. And the dream has even expanded beyond Janeace’s original vision because there are other activities happening throughout the year, like pairing older kids with the younger ones as mentors, working with them on gaining confidence with life skills like using public transportation and going to the malll.
Jonathan Slifka was not able to be a counselor this year because of work obligations, but plans to spend some time there on Friday. That’s when Ivan Lendl will make his annual appearance. Scott Slifka will be there on Friday as well, reading a special proclamation on behalf of the Town of West Hartford.
The Ivan Lendl Adaptive Sports Camp runs from Monday, Aug. 3 through Friday, Aug. 7, 2015. For more information on HSC’s Ivan Lendl Adaptive Sports Camp, please call 860-832-6220, or visit www.hfsc.org.
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