A Culture of Compassion
A rural Virginia camp is a retreat for kids and adults with needs
Stan Feuerberg notices the tears every year. They well up in the eyes of children saying goodbye to their parents who leave them to an unknown experience at a special needs camp in a winding part of rural southwest Virginia.
Then he notices the tears again. They well up when parents return because the campers understand they will miss the friends, the staffers, the camaraderie and the spirit of Camp Easterseals UCP.
“It’s one of the interesting phenomena we observe every year,” Feuerberg says. “A lot of these kids who are first-time campers will cry because of the separation. Then, on pickup day, the same campers are crying because they don’t want to go home.”
For 20 years, Feuerberg, president and CEO of Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (NOVEC), and his wife Robyn have been driving to Craig County to take their daughter Amy, who is on the autism spectrum, to Camp Easterseals UCP. Bursting with anticipation, Amy eagerly counts the days each summer to what she calls the best three-and-a-half weeks of her year.
But a camp dedicated to children and adults with physical and intellectual issues ranging from cerebral palsy to epilepsy to Down Syndrome is no small matter. It can cost about $1,000 a week. In response, the Feuerbergs have raised more than $600,000 for scholarships so Camp Easterseals UCP can immerse more needy youths and adults in its culture of compassion.
“They’re certainly unique,” Alex Barge, camp director for the last 12 years, says of the Feuerbergs. “They’re essentially helping us double our scholarships every year.”
Since Amy enjoys frolicking in the water, the camp recently honored the family’s contributions with a plaque on its pool gate. Still, Feuerberg deflects the attention to the greater cause. It’s really like the seventh cooperative principle, he says — concern for community.
“We’ve had some very generous donors over the years. I think they are the real heroes of this story — the companies and the individuals who have recognized that this is a worthy cause and have generously donated to our various fundraising campaigns over the years.”
63 Years of Camping
Modern-day camp offerings such as paintball and a zipline weren’t even in the embryonic stage in 1956, when the Virginia Society for Crippled Children and Adults announced it would build a $100,000 retreat on 56 acres near the community of New Castle.
The society had been running programs at a leased site in Bath County, but the new setting had the welcoming look and feel of a campus with a recreation building, cabins, dormitories and an infirmary.
Importantly, Camp Easter Seal, as it was known, emphasized therapy as well as recreation, making it the only camp of its kind in the country. At the maiden camp, 54 staffers safeguarded 67 youngsters. As one reporter described it: “Many had the first swim of their lives — in crystal clear Craig Creek; many for the first time held a fishing pole; many for the first time played games with other children.”
Fast forward to 2019 and the mission remains the same for the 500-plus campers who visit Camp Easterseals annually. No illness or disability is singled out; the kids are accepted for who they are and what they can do.
“They get increased independence, so they get to spend time away from home,” Barge says. “They get to do a lot more things on their own that they might not have gotten to do at home. They get increased socialization, so they’re in an environment where their counselors and other campers are supportive and accepting of all of them so they’re able to practice socializing and be more social.”
The camp operates for about 10 weeks in the summer with weekend gatherings in the fall and spring. Barge says Camp Easterseals UCP spreads the word through disability fairs, affiliated organizations and online advertising.
But there is no better recommendation than word of mouth. About 85 percent of the participants are returning campers. One just celebrated her 50th summer on the flat parcel nestled between the Craig County highlands.
Yes, a golden anniversary.
“She still swims. Most folks in their fifties and sixties will do horseback riding and shoot archery or canoe or fish,” Barge says. “We call it a retreat and make it a little more adult. It’s a little slower pace than our kids’ sessions.”
When it’s over, it’s not unusual to see the flow of tears or other emotional outpourings. “We’ve had one camper lock himself in the bathroom because he didn’t want to go,” Barge says. “But other campers are excited to see their parents, which is kind of neat, to see them run and hug their parents.”
Commitment to Camp
Amy started at camp in 1999 when she was 9. It was a bit scary for her and perhaps more so for her parents since they were leaving their younger daughter in an unfamiliar place with a bunch of college-age strangers.
In time, they came to understand that while the camp was built on hard ground, its true foundation was compassion. The trained counselors, nurses and professionals, devoted to providing the best level of care and attention, won them over.
“Once the parents become comfortable with the whole camp culture, they just kind of get sucked into it,” Feuerberg says. “We’ve heard many stories over the years of first-time parents who, after they have such a great positive experience with their kids, end up donating or supporting the cause.”
For the Feuerbergs, that meant finding a way to defray the cost for other campers attending Camp Easterseals UCP. They have been at it for 18 years. They don’t run a huge, sophisticated operation; nothing formal, no walks or marches. It’s a personal letter to a friend, a solicitation here or there to an extended family member, or an email to a business associate.
Other supporters include Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative, based in New Castle, which serves the camp with both retail power and the cooperative spirit. “Craig-Botetourt has been one of the donors over the years, as has NOVEC, and a lot of co-op people have been donors. It is really that principle of investing in community, giving back to the community and, in this case, doing something for those who can’t help themselves,” Feuerberg says.
In 2012, Easterseals UCP North Carolina & Virginia presented the Feuerbergs with the organization’s Community Partner Impact Award for enlisting $41,000 for the camp’s scholarship fund.
“The impact of Stan’s dedicated fundraising efforts and loyal commitment to Camp Easterseals UCP over decades is far-reaching,” says Luanne Welch, president and CEO of Easterseals UCP North Carolina & Virginia. “The Feuerberg family has helped to ensure that we can continue to touch thousands of lives every single day of those living with disabilities and mental health challenges and the families who love them.”
In May, the camp placed a plaque on its pool in recognition of the family’s support, which now totals $600,000 for 600 scholarships. The pool that Amy loves.
“Amy is a very unique person,” Barge says. “She kind of has her own language that once you get to know her, you understand. She enjoys dancing, which is fun. It’s just a generally positive demeanor and she loves interacting with people and talking to them.”
When Amy was younger, her camp days were the only time of the year that the Feuerbergs got a bit of a respite, considering the attention that she requires. Now she’s living in a group home in Reston, but she keeps returning to camp. And her parents continue their fundraising efforts so that other Amys can have a home away from home.
As Feuerberg says: “I think that for the two of us this was a way we could contribute to and participate in the grand effort of the camp operation. We’re not therapists. We’re not nurses. We’re not doctors. We’re just a mom and a dad.”
Learn more and donate to Camp Easterseals USP at easterseals.com/NCVA