When the first session of the Louisiana Lions Camp near Leesville was held during the summer of 1961, it was more than a place for crafts, cookouts and campfires; the weeklong camp on 170 acres of piney woodlands provided a place where a child with special needs was just another child — making friends, discovering new talents, having fun.
That unique sense of belonging and growth was experienced last summer by Emily Clark, now a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Little Oak Middle School in Slidell. “I didn’t want to leave,” Emily said, recalling the fun she had fishing, making crafts and honing her archery skills.
The daughter of Karen and Chris Clark, Emily is an enthusiastic child who especially enjoys social studies and aspires to one day become an actress or singer.
But even exuberant Emily had to admit she was a bit nervous before arriving at the Louisiana Lions Camp.
Born with neuroblastoma, Emily underwent her first surgical procedure to remove as much of the cancerous tumor pressing against her spine as possible when she was only five days old. The surgery was followed by chemotherapy, and the cancer was destroyed. Nonetheless, the tumor had caused orthopedic injury that would confine Emily to a wheelchair until, at age 3, she once again had surgery, this time as a Shriner’s Hospital patient, which enabled her to walk using leg braces. A related orthopedic surgery is scheduled for April 11, to allow time for recovery and rehabilitation in plenty of time for Emily to once again attend Louisiana Lions Camp session.
Emily said she will do whatever it takes to get back to Leesville. “When I was there, I didn’t feel like I was ‘the only one’ like me,” she said.
When this year’s summer sessions begin June 3, they will include:
One week dedicated specifically to youths with pulmonary disorders, ages 5-15.
Two one-week sessions for the mild mentally challenged, ages 8-19 (mentally challenged children must have an age level not more than four years below their chronological age).
Two one-week sessions for youths with diabetes, ages 6-11 and 11-14.
Two one-week sessions for visual, hearing and orthopedically challenged youths, ages 7-19.
Each applicant requires the sponsorship of a local Lions organization. Applications may be downloaded directly from the Lions Clubs of Louisiana website, www.lionscamp.org, or by contacting local Lions Clubs. Jerry Wilson is coordinating the efforts of the Slidell Noon Lions Club and may be reached at 646.2537; and Larry Chaudoir, the efforts of the Mandeville Lions Club, 626.8862.
While the camp is free, including transportation, the application process can be long and should be started as soon as possible.
Donations to support the Lions efforts also are welcome. A Life Membership costs $100, and can be purchased by contacting a local Lions Club member.
Wilson stressed that while the camp provides summer fun and enrichment for its campers, the week also provides a break for caretakers, parents and families.
Karen Clark encouraged families to give themselves the care they give day-in and day-out to their children.
“As much as the camp is about the kids, it’s also about the families. We all know it takes extra to care for a special-needs child. When they’re at camp, it’s OK to relax, focus on yourself, care for each other, and the other kids,” she said. Emily has a 13-year-old sister, Abigail, who is a seventh-grader at Boyet Junior High.
“Letting go is not easy,” Karen Clark admitted. “I’m so used to being around for her. Emily’s a very independent person, but to not be in the background, in case you’re needed, is a difficult thing.”
She said she was able to reach the point where she was confident that, whatever happened, Emily would receive the best possible care. “I had faith and confidence that all my concerns would be taken care of,” Karen Clark said. “I had to believe.”
Emily’s mother stressed that she never doubted for a second that her daughter would have fun at the camp. “This kid can have a great time wherever she is,” she said.
Emily encourages any child who might be considering applying for the camp to go for it. “Be confident,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt to try new things.”