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Richard Sesler

Founder, Camp Blue Skies, Charlotte, North Carolina

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Stephen Voss

After a long career in real estate investment, I had met my financial and professional goals and pledged that at age 60, I would be in a position to give 100 percent service to others. In 2009, I started the Camp Blue Skies Foundation to offer camps for adults with developmental disabilities, enhancing their lives through recreation, socialization and education in life skills. Since then, we have served 598 adult campers, and 1,177 volunteers have dedicated their time and energy to attending camp.​

The problem I’m trying to solve 

Over 6 million people in the United States have a developmental disability. When you have that and are aging out of the school system or turning 21, almost all activities with others disappear. Unlike the countless programs that support children with disabilities, very few programs serve the adult population. Camp Blue Skies was established to help fill that gap, offering an opportunity for adults ages 21 to 60-plus to socialize with their peers and enjoy activities to which they would not otherwise have access. We offer five-day overnight camps with everything that a traditional camp has, like fishing, nature walks, arts and crafts, a zip line and a climbing wall. One night we do karaoke, another night we have a campfire with s'mores, and the last night we have a dance. However, we also put an emphasis on skills that allow these individuals to live more independently and lead fulfilling and productive lives.​​

This is particularly important because individuals with developmental disabilities are living longer. The life expectancy for Down syndrome, for example, has increased from age 25 in 1983 to 60 today. Campers also have sessions on healthy eating, nutrition and the importance of daily exercise. In addition to benefiting campers, a week at Camp Blue Skies provides caregivers a much-needed respite. When I began this endeavor, I knew camp would have an impact on campers. But I did not realize the life-changing effect it would have on volunteers and caregivers. What started out as an experience for disabled adults has turned into a much bigger service. ​​

The moment that sparked my passion

My 40-year-old son has a rare genetic disorder called Williams syndrome. When he turned 21, I observed firsthand the fall-off of opportunities and services as we searched around for things for him to do. The day I turned 50, I told myself that when I retired, the next chapter in my life would be in service to other people. It took a few years to come up with the idea of camps but that’s when the seed was planted. I had enjoyed the camp experience of being outdoors and making friends in my youth, and I thought I could create the same rewarding environment for an adult population that is often mentally and physically isolated. ​

What I want people to know 

The population of people with developmental disabilities is growing, living longer, and importantly, in some cases outliving their caregivers. Yet society is doing little to serve this population both from a housing and job standpoint. There will be a greater need for services like ours, and it’s one reason that Camp Blue Skies focuses not only on recreation but continuing life skills. ​

My advice to others who want to make a difference

It's never too late to act if you have a passion for something, whether you want to create something yourself or be a part of an organization that is already doing good things in the community. It doesn't have to be perfect, and you don't necessarily have to make a lifelong commitment. But at least try things and see what clicks. ​

Why my approach is unique 

We are not aware of any entities like Camp Blue Skies in the private sector. Most groups serving adults are predominately government funded. There are some local day camps and a handful of church camps, but they are more recreational, while Camp Blue Skies also focuses on life skills and socialization. In addition, we also have an inventive business model. Instead of purchasing real estate, I had the epiphany to lease traditional camp facilities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia during their offseason in the spring and fall. We also strongly believe in collaborating with community organizations to gain support, awareness and quality programming. ​​

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