KERRVILLE — Natalie Mireles is not your typical teen attending summer camp. Natalie is deaf and blind, but still a teen ready to explore new things.
And, Texas Lions Camp (TLC) is not your typical summer camp. It is the place where children with disabilities break down walls.
Natalie’s wall last summer was 30 feet tall—the Texas Lions Camps climbing wall. And when Natalie conquered it, Brogan Cheever, her counselor, found the “TLC moment” she had anticipated for three years.
TLC is a camp for children with disabilities where counselors are assigned at almost a one-to-one ratio, often matching the specific needs of the campers to the skills of the counselors. In Natalie’s case, Brogan was able to communicate by signing in the camper’s hands.
On this particular hot day, the zip line was in full swing with a line of campers with a variety of disabilities taking their turns sailing through the air with the wind in their faces.
Brogan signed to Natalie, “What do you want to do—the zip line or the wall?”
Natalie does a type of motorboat humming with her lips when she’s thinking. She hummed as she thought it over and signed back, “Wall.”
Brogan didn’t think she understood and signed back, “Do you want to do the zip line, which is really fun, like flying through the air, or do you want to do the wall which is really hard and really hot?”
Natalie sat there for a second, concentrating and humming, then signed again, “Wall.”
It was decided, but Brogan had a new challenge—how to get a camper who was deaf and blind to find the handholds and footholds for the ascent of a 30-foot wall.
She strapped Natalie into the harness and head gear and then put on her own—with one difference. Natalie’s rope was cantilevered to lift her weight, and Brogan’s left her free to swing around Natalie as she guided her.
And the ballet began. Brogan would swing to the left around Natalie and guide her hand and foot into the first holds, then she would swing to the right and repeat the steps. Together they inched their way up the wall.
Soon after she began the ascent, Natalie’s bunkmates had gathered to cheer her on. One of the other counselors told them she couldn’t hear their cheers, and they needed to find another way to let her know they were there. So, they got behind the wall and started to beat on it so Natalie could feel the vibrations as they cheered.
Natalie realized what was happening and began to giggle as she continued the climb.
When she finally reached the top of the wall, Brogan told her, “You’re not finished. You have to ring the bell.”
Brogan guided Natalie’s hand, striking the cowbell mounted above the top of the wall. Natalie, feeling the vibrations of the bell—hit it repeatedly—and she yelled. The sound seemingly swelled up from her toes and rushed from her mouth in a glorious, guttural sound of jubilation as her bunkmates cheered in voices Natalie couldn’t hear.
When Natalie made it down, she groped in her darkness and signed to Brogan, “You are my butterfly. I have no more walls, because of you.”
And Brogan had her Texas Lions Camp moment.
According to Trish Wilson, director of development, “I always tell the counselors in my training session, there is going to be what I call ‘the moment.’ You’re going to know that moment when it happens. And when it happens, your life is forever going to be changed because it’s the moment when your heart opens up; a child climbs in and closes your heart behind them. And you’re never the same. That’s your child. That’s your TLC moment.”
The TLC moment happens every year—for many campers and many counselors.
Audrey Lewis, a counselor from McAllen, had her TLC moment recently when she helped a wheelchair bound camper named Rachel ride a horse.
“She is very slow and takes an hour and a half to eat, but she has the most gorgeous smile. I put her on a horse and she smiled the entire way. She put two thumbs up when we got her back. I said, ‘From this much to this much,’ with my hands small to big, ‘how much fun did you have?’ And she put them as big as she could, and that’s really cool when you’ve got someone like that,” said Lewis.
For nearly 60 years, TLC has provided more than 50,000 Texas children with physical disabilities a place to spend a week during the summer to participate in fun and challenging activities, to meet and make friends and, more importantly, to accomplish things they never thought possible.
TLC opened its doors in 1953 on 504 acres in Kerrville. First serving polio victims, as the years passed, the camp widened its scope, inviting children with an ever-growing list of disabilities.
Many children between the ages of seven and 16 with disabilities qualify for one of their nine camps throughout the summer. Disabilities served by the camp include absence or amputation of limbs, asthma, blindness, birth defects, burns, cancer, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, deafness, diabetes, dwarfism, epilepsy, Lupus, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, scoliosis, sickle cell anemia, spina bifida, partial paralysis and more.
Client Services Director Steven King said TLC has a five-week camp for children with physical disabilities and then two weeks of specialized camp.
“One is for children with burns that is hosted by the Texas Burn Survivor Society and then we have another one from the American Cancer Society that does Camp Discovery for a week,” he said. “We also have two weeks for children with Type I diabetes.”
There is never any cost to the children or their families.
According to Wilson, when parents “are concentrating on meeting medical bills, it’s nice to know they can send their kids to a quality facility with quality programming, quality medical care, at no cost. And their kids get something that’s unbelievably cool… when they’re having to pay so much already.”
TLC CEO Stephen Mabry said the Mission Lions Club has been a major contributor to TLC for many years. The Mission club has given $337,000 over the past 15 years and prior to that the club donated $50,000 a year.
This summer there are 155 college aged and older counselors at TLC. Several are from the Upper Valley.
Juarez Lincoln High School graduate Jonathan Liscano said his first experience at TLC was as a camper, not a counselor.
“I was a camper for a diabetes session,” he said. “I had been diagnosed with Type I diabetes five years before and I thought that I couldn’t do anything anymore. But then I heard about this camp, so I came, and it completely changed my life.”
Prospective counselors go through eight hours of training a day for eight days. Sharyland High School graduate Tania Espinoza said training to become a counselor before the first campers arrived was tough.
“It was rigorous, but I learned so much,” she said. “They taught us a lot, so I really felt prepared for when the kids arrived. It was definitely worth it.”
It’s not too late for people who are interested in attending TLC to do so this summer. Visit www.lionscamp.com to apply online or call Lions Camp at 830-896-8500. To learn more about the camp, visit the website or contact a member of the Mission Lions Club.