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May 20, 2014 10:15 PM

Camp Conquer Cancelled

Sioux Falls, SD

It's an experience pretty much every parent hopes their child can have--summer camp.  Even parents with children who have special needs would like their kids to experience this rite of childhood.  Sanford Health has supplied that opportunity for years.  But this year a camp for special needs kids was cancelled.  And that has some parents questioning Sanford Health's priorities. 

12-year-old Karl Madsen has a brain injury and 9-year-old Olivia Storley has cerebral palsy.  These two special needs kids became best friends at a week-long summer camp. 

"These two met only because of Camp Conquer.  And there was a friendship created at a camp that children without special needs understand," Anna Madsen said.

"She just loves Karl and she loves that camp," Krystal Storley said.

Both of these kids’ moms say in a world where their kids are constantly told no, or what they can't do, Sanford Health's Camp Conquer said yes. 

"'Yes; you'd like to go swimming.  We can make that happen.  Yes, you'd like to go bowling; let's make that happen.  Yes, you'd like to go fishing, let's bring you to the lake,'" Madsen said.

"Every time we see those pictures, she just squeals; especially the pictures with Karl.  She just gets so excited," Storley said.

But this year that excitement has been squelched.  Sanford Health told Madsen in October that Camp Conquer was cancelled. 

"Here you have this population of people who are indeed the least of these and it's precisely there that Sanford decided to trim and as a parent and as human that bothers me," Madsen said.

Madsen says she communicated with camp officials several times begging them to keep the camp, to no avail.  These mothers say they just can't understand the reason their kids are being shut out. 

"You just wonder why?  Why aren't they putting the advertisement out for this camp?   Why are they doing so much for the events center and the Pentagon?  Why are they doing so much for that?" Storley said.

"It's not a cut. It's a decision we made this summer, given the needs that were expressed for this summer," Debra Leners, Vice President of Children's and Women's Services for Sanford Health, said.

Sanford Health says these special camps require more staff and the dwindling number of campers who wanted to attend made it impossible to hold it again.

"It's just getting tighter and tighter to find people who are willing to work full time and volunteer time or give PTO time for the number of camps we have.  We serve almost 300 kids every summer, so to add one more camp for two to three kids was not going to be feasible," Leners said.

As they watch the Sanford Health footprint grow, these moms wonder where their children will fit in. 

"It was right around the time, about a month or so that we found out that Camp Conquer was cancelled that we received news about the Pentagon.  This $19 million facility at the sport complex, a complex in which Karl and Olivia would never be able to participate fully," Madsen said.

"They won't be able to play there.  Very unlikely they'll be playing football. What else do they do there? Volleyball?  Basketball?" Storley said.

Sanford says it is looking for new programs for special needs kids at the sports complex.

"There are lots of therapeutic sports activities for lots of complex needs. I think we can be creative with technology; we're just not ready to do that tomorrow," Leners said.

These moms say for the time being, their kids will sit on the sidelines. 

"I just don't know how she'll deal with it.  Knowing she can't see Karl; that's a big thing for her and the camp and the other kids and to see the friends she made," Storley said.

"And this one positive experience was taken away from them and my job as an advocate, as a mama and as a citizen of Sioux Falls, is to call attention to that and say 'Hey, this isn't right. I think we're better than that,'" Madsen said.

Sanford Health also cancelled a summer camp for children who've lost a loved one, but the health system says it's simply reworking that program to be held at another time.  Its camp for kids with spina bifida is full and there's a waiting list for the camp for kids with cancer.

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