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Orchard Hill opens inclusive camp for Hazleton area children at Ferrwood

BUTLER TWP. — Finn Corcoran, wearing a leather guard on his forearm, was missing on the archery range while Sophia Dominguez stood beside him and sunk arrow after arrow into the target.

"It's so hard," Finn said.

Jim Payne, executive director of Camp Orchard Hill, showed him how to draw, aim and release an arrow.

Finn let go too soon and the arrow went awry, but later he shot an arrow closer to the mark.

"Oh, I got the top of the target," he said.

Payne might have hit the mark, too, when expanding Orchard Hill's inclusive camp, which has operated for 16 years in Dallas, to a second location at Camp Ferrwood for children from the Hazleton area this summer.

Each week since June 10 when camp began, 25 to 30 children have attended

"A great start, especially for a brand new" endeavor, said Payne, adding that Orchard Hill will continue holding sessions at Ferrwood through Aug. 16.

Camp meets 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and costs $200 a week. Parents can arrange dropoffs as early as 7:30 a.m. or pickups as late as 5:30 p.m.

Orchard Hill welcomes campers if they have completed kindergarten but no older than 15. Some campers have autism or developmental delays. Others are neurotypical.

"The beauty of it is they all do the same activities together," Payne said.

Activities vary with the day of the week, said Payne, who gave a tour on Wednesday when campers take field trips, such as to Chacko's in Wilkes-Barre for bowling and pizza, or hear from guest speakers like the expert on velociraptors scheduled to stop by that afternoon. One boy wore his dinosaur shirt in anticipation.

On Tuesdays, campers take a school bus to play outdoors at Freedom Park and inside the gymnasium of the community center next to the park.

Thursdays, they're off to Whispering Willows Park in Conyngham for swimming and a picnic.

On Mondays and Fridays, they stay at Ferrwood, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and known for an annual music and arts camp.

While Finn, Sophia and other campers went to the archery range two or three at a time on Wednesday morning, other campers played ping-pong, foosball and board games in the lounge. Exposed ceiling beams and paneling there date to the 1920s while rustic blanket patterns cover the furniture cushions.

Iliana Pontier played checkers with Kristen Baker, a counselor.

"Nooo," Iliana said when Baker jumped her checker.

Baker, who will start Clarks Summit Bible College this year as an accounting major, said she enjoys getting to know the campers.

"It's a growing experience for me, a lot of fun," she said.

Joshua Sosa, watching the checkers game, said he likes going outside to play Nine Square in the Air.

In Nine Square, campers stand beneath a grid of poles above them and volley a ball into each other's squares.

"It's super quick. Nobody's on the sidelines for very long," Payne said.

Soccer goals, a pool-sized arena for dodgeball and inflatable waterslide are set up on the campground.

When the board games break up, Kristen Corcoran, Finn's mother and a counselor, leads the campers on a march, single file from the lounge across the field to the band shell.

Beneath the shell, Joe Cruz keps the martial theme going by singing, "I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry or shoot in the artillery," alternately high stepping, galloping and shaping his fingers like a pistol to fit the lyrics, "but I'm in the Lord's army."

"Yes sir," the campers sing in the refrain.

Next Cruz tells the Bible story of the day. He picked Adam and Eve.

The highlight of his talk was a magic trick in which he stuffed a small red square of cloth into his fist. When he opened his hands, the cloth disappeared.

Payne said counselors take turns giving talks so campers hear different voices at the Christian camp.

The stories are nondenominational and highlight principles like the Golden Rule for children of any faith or no faith.

"We're big on character development," Payne said. "Our goal is to help parents raise better children."

Camp Orchard Hill opened in 1972 on 140 acres in Dallas with cabins, lodge, dining hall, lake and pool where 500 children attend each week of the summer.

Payne has been on board since 1997 after leaving a career where he helped people finance equipment that they bought from John Deere.

He said he wanted to do something more meaningful, enjoyed being around the campers and always liked being outdoors.

In the spring of 2023, Payne discussed opening an inclusive camp in the Hazleton area with representatives from the CAN DO Foundation, which has adopted Ferrwood, and AllOne Charities.

Ferrwood sought another tenant for the camp, which only opens for music and art students two weeks each summer.

On the weeks of July 7 and 14 when Ferrwood holds its music and arts camp, Camp Orchard Hill will relocate one-half mile away to Drums Elementary/Middle School. On Fridays when the school is closed during summers, camp will convene at Hazleton Area Recreation Program, which has a fitness center and new sensory room, especially suited for children with autism.

During the summer, children who attend programs with Hazleton Area Public Library and Hazleton Integration Project also plan to spend days at the inclusive camp.

Payne said children with autism and developmental delays improve language skills and become more sociable at inclusive camp while neurotypical children gain empathy.

A lot of teasing happens, he said, because children don't understand why someone is different.

For example, he told about a boy at the Dallas camp who listens to the weather forecast daily. When stressed, the boy recites the forecast.

When another camper teased the boy, Payne pointed out that the boy only heard the forecast once but remembered it, a challenging task for anyone.

"It helps kids understand the sense of we're all different. We all have our quirks," Payne said. "It's not a bad thing. It's a good thing."

Source: Ken Jackson / Staff Writer

Photo Credit: John Haeger / Staff Photographer

Standard-Speaker Newspaper, Hazleton PA


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