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UTHSC Alumnae Start Camp for Children With Special Needs

Camp Cliffview participant Josiah Simpson enjoys archery with the help of his camp counselor in 2019.

When UTHSC College of Health Professions alumna and pediatric physical therapist Ashleigh Dalton, DPT, was researching recreational resources for her clients, she noticed that there was a lack of summer camps available for children with special needs.  So, she teamed up with fellow COHP alumna and pediatric occupational therapist Helen Berry, OTR/L, to start Camp Cliffview, a one-day summer camp specifically for children with special needs.

“The purpose of the camp is for our participants to build confidence, have fun, be outdoors, and just be a kid for the day,” Dalton said. The camp, which began in 2014, has locations in Johnson City, Tennessee, and Brevard, North Carolina. It is nonprofit and funded solely by donations.

The coronavirus halted the camp this year, but the two are already planning for the future.

Ashleigh Dalton (left) and Helen Berry (right) started Camp Cliffview for children with special needs.

Dalton and Berry did not connect while attending UT Health Science Center but formed a friendship after meeting in Johnson City. They credit their individual university experiences for igniting and solidifying their career choice to work with pediatric patients. “While working in this field, Helen and I recognized an issue and wanted to change it for the better,” Dalton said. “We wanted to create an inclusive, fun opportunity specifically for children with special needs.”

Dalton and Berry visited Camp Horizon, a camp for children with special needs in Chattanooga. From there, they got to work to make their vision a reality.

Presently, the camp in Johnson City is at Appalachian Christian Camp, while the Brevard/Hendersonville camp takes place at Camp Ton-A-Wandah. Activities include a climbing wall, zip line, balance board, fishing, creek play, swimming, a petting zoo, team-building games, archery, paddle boarding, storytelling. and crafts.  All campers have at least one counselor for a one-on-one experience. Counselors are physical therapy and occupational therapy students from Tennessee and North Carolina. The camp also has several volunteers who include practicing physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech-language pathologists.

Dalton’s favorite part of camp is seeing the smiles on campers’ faces. “I enjoy watching them overcome fear and try new things,” she said. “Parents/caregivers are not allowed to stay for the camp, so it’s a respite day for them. The families are always appreciative about camp and are really good at relaying comments from the participants about how much they love it.”

Dalton and Berry plan on bringing the camp back in 2021. They are also exploring the possibilities of overnight camps and special field trips during the year.