Breaking Ground 92 - Camp EmPower, MePower: An adult learning experience

by Debbie Riffle
a large group shot of participants and volunteer staff of Camp EmPower, MePower. They are all casually dressed and have big smiles on their faces. Several of the people have their arms around the shoulders of others

The Down Syndrome Association of West TN (DSAWT) may be a small nonprofit but we pride ourselves in developing programs with a BIG impact for individuals that we serve in West Tennessee. Each year our board meets to discuss new program opportunities that can fill a need in our community. Over the years, we have discussed the growing need of serving our adult population with Down syndrome. After much discussion, planning and researching natural community supports, the DSAWT was excited to introduce Camp EmPower, MePower in 2017. EmPower, MePower is a one-week adult learning experience for individuals with Down syndrome ages 18 and up. The purpose of this program is to empower individuals by teaching independence and self-determination through fun, meaningful experiences such as utilizing public transportation, exploring the community and providing opportunities to develop natural friendships with peers.

One of the biggest challenges for individuals with disabilities in accessing their community is the lack of transportation. Our campers rely solely on transportation by a friend or family member, which is very limiting. Our number one priority for camp was to introduce them to the Jackson Transit Authority, our local public transportation system.  We wanted our campers out in the community every day, riding the bus to and from their destinations.

This goal was high for our first year of camp and the planning and logistics were no easy task. The teachers and I soon realized that we had a lot to learn about public transportation ourselves, before we could teach the campers. We had to learn bus routes, rules and expectations, and how to be prepared for unexpected changes. After much preparation, the teachers decided to do a trial run before camp started. While proudly standing on the side of the road waiting for the bus to arrive, they were speechless when it drove right past because they were standing on the wrong side of the road! They broke out into laughter as they realized there was obviously a bit more work to be done.

With additional homework we were finally ready for the first day of camp. Each day we rode the bus to and from our outings. The campers loved learning how to use bus passes and riding the bus, as well as meeting other passengers. They did a great job learning bus rules, which included entering and exiting safely and quickly. Our bus trips were definitely the highlight of every day for not only our campers and volunteers, but also for our friendly JTA bus drivers and other passengers.  

Another goal for camp was to provide fun, meaningful opportunities through community outings and recreational and learning activities with guests from our community. Our outings included a painting session at Painting with a Twist, a visit to Casey Jones Village and Train Museum, lunch with friends at the Old Country Store, a guided tour of the hospital, and a morning at the Fire Station for fun and hands-on activities. We also invited guests to camp each afternoon for activities such as yoga, zumba, music with instruments and learning basic banking skills. With our bus rides and outings each morning, preparing and serving lunch and snacks and our guest activities in the afternoon, we made the most of every busy day.

Last but not least, our amazing volunteers were some of our greatest assets at camp.  We wanted a natural environment that included typical peers and opportunities to make new friends. Our volunteers were in the same age group as our campers. We had close to the same number of volunteers as campers so there were plenty of friends to go around! The volunteers and campers “hung out” together, helped each other, laughed, danced, took selfies, and got to know each other - just like any new friend. By the end of the week, everyone was already dreaming of camp next year and planning to see each other again soon. Several campers and volunteers have even stayed in touch throughout the year. That’s just what friends do! Our volunteers made camp a memorable experience for everyone.

The DSAWT set out with big dreams and goals to make a difference in the lives of adults with Down syndrome by providing opportunities to increase their independence and self-determination skills while building new friendships along the way. We may be a small organization that started with only one week of camp but the outcomes were momentous in the lives of our campers, their families, the volunteers, and individuals that we met throughout the community.

In 2018, the DSAWT is very proud to be extending Camp EmPower, MePower to two weeks. In remembering the quote by Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

A special thank you to the Jackson Center for Independent Living (JCIL), Beth James, and her staff for the gracious offer to use their facility and their encouragement and support. 

Author bio: Debbie Riffle is the mother of an adult son with Down syndrome, a Partners grad, a DSAWT board member and a former long-standing Council member from Jackson.

For more information about DSAWT, please email or call 731.499.1065.