Director Spotlight: Jennifer Stelmach

“It’s my favorite week of the year. Hands down. My favorite week. Yes, it’s worth it. ~ Jennifer Stelmach, Director, Camp Abilities Florida

Whether in NY, Alaska or Africa, Camp Abilities is a gathering of champions. The kids. The parents. The volunteers. The counselors. The directors. Today, I’d like to introduce you to one of the hundreds of champions who embrace the truth that When You Believe You Can Achieve.

Jennifer Stelmach was a twenty-one-year-old student at Florida State University when she attended her first Camp Abilities in Brockport, NY. She was there as part of her teacher education. Jennifer has been active all her life and she immediately embraced the mission and vision of Camp Abilities. Her first and second summers were funded by her program but she saw such value in the camp, she paid for years three and four out of her own funds. 

Camp Abilities is a place where everyone is challenged to do great things – whether that be run with a tether or jump into the water or start a new camp. 

“It wasn’t until I was at Camp Abilities that I realized there were no sports camps for children who are visually impaired in Florida. I decided right away I would do this.”

Two years later, at the age of twenty-three, Jennifer Stelmach opened the first Camp Abilities in Stark, Florida, and the only camp currently offered in the entire state. 

Running A Sports Camp

“The first year was rough.” Their $3000 budget for six campers was raised only through “begging and pleading” and the parent’s willingness to pay a $200 fee. Little Legend Foundation and the local Johnson & Johnson became fundraising partners. By the second season, Camp Abilities Florida was able to host 15 campers without a fee. Year three they increased to 22 and it has remained full every season since.

The kids arrive on a Saturday and stay until Tuesday in dorms at the Montgomery Center.  Montgomery Center has three lakes, and the kids are taught to kayak and paddle board on the crystal waters. On the field, the kids play 5-a-side soccer and beep baseball. At night they have campfires and talent shows, board games and dance parties. Jennifer intentionally creates a “traditional summer camp experience.” 

Running a Camp Abilities is time consuming. Jennifer and her staff make the meals, plan the week, run the activities, communicate with parents, train counselors, raise funds, maintain the website, and then stay up all hours bonding with kids.  

One of Jennifer’s roles is to help parents feel comfortable sending their kids to an overnight sports camp. To help with this, she offers a shorter overnight camping experience and a one-day surfing school. Also, she is available twenty-four hours a day during camp. “I remind them that all the campers have a dedicated counselor. But the best thing to do is introduce a reluctant parent to a seasoned one.”

Elevated Expectation

“At Camp Abilities, we elevate the level of expectation. We expect the campers to take care of themselves and their property. If that means teaching a camper how to put toothpaste on the toothbrush, that’s what we do. If it means asking a camper to apply their own sunscreen, that’s what we do. There is no reason they can’t manage these things with practice.”

“We want our campers to go home with new skills beyond sports. We want our campers to see all that they can do and be.”

Counselor-in-Training

Camp doesn’t have to end when a camper turns sixteen. As a matter of fact, a veteran camper can become the greatest source of support. April is one of Camp Abilities Florida’s champions. She started camp at the age of thirteen. April was the only visually impaired child at her school, and she was subjected to intense bullying. She came to camp shy and afraid. But at Camp Abilities she wasn’t alone anymore. She wasn’t bullied or ostracized. She was accepted for the wonderful person she is. When April was about to age out of Camp Abilities, Jennifer approached her about staying on as a Counselor-In-Training. The CIT program allows campers, like April, to become counselors too. 

The CIT is a win-win-win. CITs are the perfect people to teach counselors how to best help a child who is visually impaired. CITs are also the best people to encourage a camper to jump off the paddle board into the cool lake because they faced the same fear and conquered it. CIT is a three-layer mentorship program where counselors, counselors-in-training, and campers learn to communicate and support each other.

Advice For Others

The first lesson Jennifer learned, and is still learning, is to ask for help. “You simply cannot do it all and people want to help. I’ve had people be unable to help because of prior commitments. But no one has ever said no because of disinterest. People do want to help. We just have to allow them to.”

The weeks before camp are a whirlwind of activity – making shirts, gathering and inspecting equipment, shopping, cooking, training, organizing. The week of camp is a whirlwind of fun and exhaustion. Jennifer says you have to set boundaries, especially after camp. “Shut everything down. Tell parents you won’t be answering email or taking phone calls for two months. Have an automatic message. Take the time.” 

“It’s really helpful if you can have a co-director who is as committed as you are. Leah Stearns was my co-director, and I could not have done this without her. She’s taking some time off for her young family and I’ll miss her. So will the campers.”

Camp is more than one week of fun in the Florida sun. Part of directing a camp is answering emails and phone calls, maintaining the website, having or participating in fundraising programs. Before one camp ends, you are planning the next. So why does she do it?

I Was So Scared

Michael was eight years old when he attended his first Camp Abilities. When he got back home, he told his teacher, “Ms. Jennifer pushed me out on a paddle board. I was so scared, but I jumped off. I did it!” 

“I do it for Michael. For April. I get to watch these kids succeed at something new. Some kids walk in here scared of the water. I get that, I really do. But we get them in the water, and they love it.”

“We need at least three more camps in Florida,” Jennifer said. “Some of the kids drive over 200 miles and many kids in the state are unable to even consider the trip. We already have to use a lottery system and I hate that I have to tell kids they can’t come.” She sighed and added, “Actually, we need more camps everywhere. Kids deserve the chance to have a camp experience with other kids like them. That’s what I hear most often – Camp Abilities is a place to be with kids who understand each other. A camp that forces them out of their comfort zone and into success.”

Jennifer Stelmach stepped out of her own comfort zone and Camp Abilities Florida is, and will continue to be, a success. 

April, Michael, Jennifer and all the others who are involved with Camp Abilities World are champions.  

Stay tuned as we introduce you to other champions in the Camp Abilities World.

If you’d like more information on or to donate to Camp Abilities Florida, please visit https://www.campabilitiesflorida.com/.  

 

 

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