PARRISH -- One by one, the campers made it to the top of the tower, hooked onto a zip line, and then stepped off into thin air.
The screams were hair-raising as they hurtled 100 yards or more down the zip line at treetop level through the oaks and pines of Dayspring Retreat.
If it wasn’t for the big grins on their faces, you would have thought the campers were terrified rather than thrilled.
Camp Able, a program of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, was held this week at Dayspring Retreat for the fifth year.
The campers, ranging in age from about 9 to 40, all have special needs.
But Phil Rogers, who was assisting the Rev. Kyle Bennett, pastor of St. Marks Church of Marco Island, says Camp Able is not about disabilities.
“It’s about abilities,” he said.
The Camp Able philosophy observes that “we are, each of us, disabled in some way and each of us is gifted. At Camp Able our goal is to work around our disabilities so that we may celebrate our gifts.”
During the weeklong camp, campers get to experience things that any camper would enjoy -- riding the zip line, canoeing, swimming, making s’mores, hiking through backwoods trails, and more.
“There is little down time for the campers. They are busy from 7 to 9 doing all kinds of different things,” said Rogers, a retired airline pilot.
Bennett brought the idea of camps for special needs children and adults as a special ministry when he moved to Florida, and has now being doing them for a quarter-century, Rogers said.
Congregations throughout the diocese support the program with money, cookies and volunteers. Planning for the one-week camp takes the better part of a year.
This year, Camp Able hosted 39 campers. A staff of 78 -- 10 adults and 68 counselors drawn from high schools and colleges -- were there to care for them and keep the camp running smoothly.
Many hands are needed, considering that some of the campers have profound disabilities.
Among the counselors was Connor Cummings, a 16-year-old Braden River High School student and football player.
“I love it. It’s fun,” Cummings said. “I like interacting with the kids and learning their personalities.”
His sister, Brooke, 22, is in a wheelchair and has been a camper at Camp Able for four years.
Marianne Rojas, 22, of Ellenton was among the campers this year.
Moments after coming off the zip line, she said the experience gave her butterflies, but that it was fun.
She allowed that she probably enjoyed swimming and singing more.
Camp Able is like a three-legged stool, Rogers says.
One leg is the campers who get to interact with others like themselves and share exciting new experiences.
The second leg is the counselors who take away experiences they’ll remember for a lifetime.
And the third leg is the parents who get a break, as their children stay overnight in cabins named “Matthew,” “Mark, “Luke” and “John,” Rogers said.
For some parents and their children, Camp Able marks the first time the two have been apart.
The emphasis is on fun throughout the day, but there are daily prayers after morning wakeup, a Bible story at 9 a.m. chapel, and other expressions of faith during the day.
“We stress that we are family here and there is a lot of love. Basically loving your neighbor and others before self,” Rogers said.
Counselors have a long day, too, and wrap things up with a staff meeting at 10 p.m.
“That’s where it comes together for the counselors,” Rogers said. “And Father Kyle asks, ‘Where did you see God today?’”
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.