Two Ripley County boys who don’t know each other have a lot in common.
Both need help walking. Michael Gray Jr., 10, rural Batesville, has leg braces, while Travis Benning, 9, Versailles, uses crutches. For longer journeys, such as navigating a store or zoo, they need wheelchairs.
Both use the word FUN over and over when talking about their summers.
Maybe that’s because they attended Camp Riley at Bradford Woods, Indiana University’s outdoor recreation center near Martinsville.
Gray, the son of Tami and Michael Gray Sr., describes his third summer there as “a camping experience with kids that are just like you. They have braces issues or have trouble speaking or trouble walking. Some might have spine issues and some might even use power wheelchairs. They have so much fun … they won’t even know (their parents) are gone.”
“Camp Riley empowers children with physical disabilities by providing enriching, life-changing experiences in a traditional camping environment tailored to their individual needs. For 58 years, campers have shattered perceived limitations, met new friends and reached higher achievements, allowing them to return home with an increased sense of independence and confidence,” explains Jason Mueller, regional communications manager of Riley Children’s Foundation, which supports Riley Hospital for Children and the camp.
At camp, “you can do all sorts of fun things that you might not have ever done before,” reports Benning, the son of Brian and Terri Benning. During his second time at the camp, “I liked archery and swimming” in the pool rather than the lake.
Mastering the climbing tower was the greatest challenge and No. 1 activity of Gray, who has arthrogryposis, a rare muscle disorder causing stiff joints and abnormal development of muscles. Wearing a harness, he had to try to climb up 100 feet with the help of a wood piece, brick, rock and other objects. To show progress, there are three bells to ring – one at the top – and platforms near each for rest. “I’m afraid of heights, so I only made it to the second bell.”
Walking up cardiac hill was the toughest activity for Benning, who has spina bifida, a birth defect in which bones do not form properly around the spinal cord. The incline “is like a mountain that’s big and steep,” recalls Gray. “All you have is your feet to walk up it or a wheelchair. You can army crawl or roll or walk ... Some kids needs counselors to push them in wheelchairs.”
Another highlight for Gray was when the Fat Boys Jeepers “took all the kids, no matter what disability, to ride in their jeeps,” reports his stepmother. On that excursion, the Jac-Cen-Del Elementary School fifth-grader learned his favorite camp tune, “She got a Nose Job,” good because it was silly.
Great times continued during evening programs. Minute to Win It was awesome for Benning to see. “You had a minute to do a challenge. One was eating Oreos off your cheeks. It was fun to watch” one participant from each cabin try to be the best. Gray sang Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” during a talent show. When the applause came, he felt “proud and a little bit embarrassed ... I don’t like to sing out in public. I’ll lock my door and sing in my room!”
Neither could list a hated activity.
Between eight and 10 campers and three to five counselors slept in each cabin. A hundred or so campers were there with Gray July 14-26. There were about 60 kids at Benning’s June 16-21 session from not only Indiana, but also Illinois, Michigan and Ohio.
Wild life fascinated the campers. “The coolest thing that I saw” was a 15-inch-long light brown woodchuck hanging out by his cabin, recalls Benning, a South Ripley Elementary School fourth-grader. More curious than afraid, the youth had a stare-off with the creature. Gray’s best moment was viewing a bald eagle. “It’s like an endangered animal. Nobody’s allowed to hunt on that land” so eagles are safe there. He also saw a gray-tailed squirrel, deer, owl, hawk and skunk. That last encounter “didn’t turn out so good. I tried to walk up and catch it, but a counselor came and grabbed me.”
Benning’s most delectable camp food was pizza, but he didn’t care for fruits and vegetables. On the other hand, Gray went nuts over spinach “with a whole bunch of ranch dressing and cottage cheese and hot sauce all over it.” He also was partial to foods wrapped in foil and grilled. A banana boat was made with that fruit, two marshmallows, chocolate chips and peanut butter. A hobo meal was concocted using chicken, beef, bacon, potatoes, vegetables and cheese.
At a baking class, Gray learned how to transform a can of biscuits, marshmallow, cinnamon and powdered sugar into homemade doughnuts. “Too much powdered sugar” was his verdict.
Thanks to Riley Children’s Foundation and donors, the cost to attend is $400 for a one-week session and $800 for a two-week one, according to Mueller. “A sliding scale is available depending on household income. Every child can attend Camp Riley regardless of their ability to pay.” Gray says, “I would like to thank Tri Kappa, Osgood; great-grandma Marita Billman, Osgood; grandparents Jerome Billman, New Point, and Mandy Collins, Osgood; and my mom and dad for helping me go.”
The boys were too busy to get homesick. Benning says, “People in my cabin were my friends and I made other friends, too.”
According to Gray, “On my first summer I cried when I left” Bradford Woods because he had to say goodbye to a memorable Irish counselor named Brendan. “We really bonded.” He and the young man still send letters back and forth and Gray announced to his parents he wants a high school vacation trip to Ireland. He intends to e-mail two new friends he made this time in Noblesville and Columbus.
At home, Benning, who has three brothers (Sean Guenther, 23; Ethan Guenther, 20; and Trevor Benning, 11) likes playing video games; watching TV, especially “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody” and “The Suite Life on Deck”; and shooting a bow and arrows at a turkey target. Gray is big into 4-H, listing recycling, microwave foods and gardening as his preferred projects. “Next year I’d like to do collectibles.”
But Camp Riley is hard to forget. Knowing that the facility will boast a zipline and clubhouse next summer, both answer with a resounding yes when asked whether they want to return.
Gray reflects, “One kid can hardly talk and couldn’t hear, so you had to use sign language.” Others have issues with arms and legs. What amazed him was “how many kids are just like me, with braces and can’t hardly walk.”
At Camp Riley, they understand each other.
Debbie Blank can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.
HOW TO HELP • Eligible children 8-18 can attend one of five Camp Riley sessions. The facility is universally accessible and the staff-to-camper ratio never exceeds one-to-three. Riley Hospital for Children medical and nursing directors, pharmacists and staff are integrated into the camp program. Twenty-four-hour medical care is available. • In 2013, 223 campers attended, representing 57 Indiana counties and seven states. • Donors interested in providing the Camp Riley experience to Hoosier children with the gift of camperships should contact Riley Children's Foundation at RileyKids.org/camp or toll-free 877-867-4539.