No limits for some special campers in Okolona

By Sheena Barnett/NEMS Daily Journal

OKOLONA – After the Girl Scouts go home after a summer at Camp Tik-A-Witha, another group of campers descends on the camp for a week of archery, swimming, horseback riding and canoeing.
This isn’t just any group of campers.
These 30 campers are children with special needs, and they attend the Elizabeth Gwin Session for Special Children at Camp Tik-A-Witha. About 60 folks take a week-long vacation to serve as volunteers at the camp each summer, to ensure the kids have an educational and fun time.
“The campers are riding horses, canoeing, archery, swimming,” said camp director Myra Collins. “We just adapt to their abilities. It really is the icing on the cake to the summer, seeing these kids on a horse for the first time.”
One of those campers was 8-year-old Will Isler of Columbus, who, on Thursday morning, was about to go out for a canoe ride.
“The lake is pretty fun,” he said, smiling.
The goal is to give each child three new experiences, whether that’s canoeing, petting an alligator or jumping off a diving board. Also helping the children are 11 occupational therapy students from Itawamba Community College, as well as Girl Scouts who are a part of the Let’s All Play program. The Let’s All Play kids help the campers have a good time at the camp.
One of those volunteers is Debbie Pannell of Mantachie, who’s in her second year at the camp. Her daughter, Mallory, 14, is a Girl Scout in Let’s All Play. On Thursday morning, Mallory helped lead campers through a horse trail and cheered them on.
“You learn that it’s not about me this week,” Debbie said. “I’m a fast, fast person, but I’ve had to slow down. We take our time.”
Mallory said she liked the family-like atmosphere at the Elizabeth Gwin Session. With fewer campers than at the Girl Scout camp, she was able to learn everyone’s name and get to know them.
“We’ve just been playing with the kids and hanging out with them, and making them feel good about themselves,” she said.
The Elizabeth Gwin Session doesn’t just benefit the campers and the Let’s All Play kids – it also has helped one volunteer find her life’s purpose.
Cindy “Boats” Burks of Columbus was in college 16 years ago, trying to decide on a major. After volunteering at the camp, she discovered her passion for therapeutic recreation. Now, she takes a week-long vacation from her job to keep doing her job, just at Camp Tik-A-Witha.
“In their regular life, they have enough limits put on them,” she said about the campers. “We try not to put any limits on them.”
sheena.barnett@journalinc.com