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Guardsmen volunteer at special-needs camp
LAKE OF THE OZARKS STATE PARK, Mo. -- Archery, arts and crafts, boating and a trip to the water park. These activities suggest an ordinary summer camp that thousands of American children flock to every summer.
But Camp Guardian -- where Missouri National Guard Soldiers volunteered for a week this summer -- is much more than that; it's a place where special-needs children and adults can get that sense of normalcy for five days a year that most take for granted.
"At the end of the camp, I was very humbled to be able to help," said Sgt. Dustin Rees of Cape Girardeau. "Most of these kids don't get to experience fun on a daily basis. The camp is probably the highlight of their year. So for me to be able to help in some small way was very rewarding. I feel like I made a lot of friends this summer."
Seventy children attended Camp Guardian, which took place this year July 26-30 at Lake of the Ozarks State Park's Camp Rising Sun. The campers -- ages 8 to 80 -- have all been diagnosed with Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, autism or various other mental and physical disabilities.
Three members of the Cape Girardeau-based 1140th Engineer Battalion's Headquarters Company -- Rees, Spc. Dillon Rickman and Spc. Vikas Chaudhary -- volunteered at the camp this year, like Guard Soldiers do every year.
The Soldiers brought and maintained several generators, which powered air-conditioning units for the cabins. They also provided a mobile kitchen for some of the meals to be prepared. When the Soldiers weren't working on maintenance, they participated in camp events, such as helping the campers get into boats, going to a water park with them or dancing with them at nightly get-togethers.
"I'm really proud the battalion took a support role for Camp Guardian," said Lt. Col. John Oberkirsch, the 1140th's battalion commander. "It really happened from the ground up, and it's such a worthwhile cause."
During the camp, adjutant general Brig. Gen. Stephen L. Danner made an appearance, flying in on a Blackhawk and spending some time with campers and volunteers. The Guard has supported the camp for years and is obviously, "very near and dear to the Missouri National Guard's heart," said camp director Connie Howe.
Many of the volunteers each year are members or veterans of the Missouri National Guard.
"If we wouldn't have had the National Guard's help this year, the camp would not have happened," Howe said. "With the heat the way it was, if we didn't have those generators, there would not have been a camp."
But perhaps more impressive, she said, was how the Soldiers really got involved with the campers.
"Those guys, they were the best," she said. "They got right in and worked with the campers. They did just what we did. The campers got such a kick out of the Soldiers, especially when they were in their uniform. It means so much that the National Guard guys were here."
Mike Gunther, a retired lieutenant colonel with the Missouri National Guard from Dixon, Mo., volunteered at the camp, helping oversee the waterfront for swimming and boating. Gunther, whose daughter, Allison, was born with spina bifida, has volunteered for years. Now, his daughter comes to camp to help out as well.
Many of the campers live in Department of Mental Health group homes throughout the state.
"We want to give these kids a summer camp experience," he said. "A lot of time, any fun they have all year is limited to what we do for them at the camp. I heard one story, that right after Christmas one girl started packing for camp and the camp's not until July, so I know this camp means something to these kids."
The camp, which has been taking place for years, has always been supported by the Missouri National Guard, Gunther said.
"We couldn't exist without all the Guard support we get," he said. "There are so many Guardsmen, former Guardsmen and their families here. It really is a Guard program."
The Soldiers who volunteered said they were gratified to be able to help.
"I've never got to work with special-needs kids before," said Rickman, of Cape Girardeau. "I learned so much, just by spending time with them. It really made me feel good to be able help. We take this stuff for granted, being able to do what we want. But to see their eyes light up, it was worth it and I'd do it again in a heart-beat."
For more information about the Missouri National Guard, please call 1-800-GoGuard or visit www.moguard.com.